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Published on December 14, 2015

Shooting hoops and lifting spiritsShooting hoops and lifting spirits

At first glance, you might think that Shea’s “No Limit” Youth Basketball Association is an unlikely investment for Cape Cod Healthcare. There are no doctors or nurses involved, and no medical programs associated with this youth league.

But the basketball program, which kicked off its 2015-16 season on December 6, is addressing a growing epidemic on Cape Cod and across the state – not just drug use, but the drug overdoses that are increasingly sending young people to jail, to the hospital and to the morgue.

“For those kids who live in a world where adults are substance abusers, we want to help them realize there is an alternative to this way of life,” said Lisa Guyon, Community Benefits director for Cape Cod Healthcare’s Community Benefits. “For others who have yet to encounter drugs and alcohol, this program provides a strong defense to inevitable peer pressure.”

Another reason Cape Cod Healthcare picked the “No Limit” program can be summed up in two words, Guyon said.

Jonah Shea

Jonah Shea

Shea is a quadriplegic whose own determination to overcome a profound disability has become a beacon for the kids he touches through the non-profit he created and directs.

“We watched how his kids respond to him,” said Guyon. “He doesn’t have to lecture about overcoming the odds. He lives it. These young men realize that if Jonah can persevere and not feel sorry for himself, then they sure can. Their challenges aren’t nearly as tough as his.”

Shea was 26 when he and a friend stopped at Crow’s Pasture Beach in Dennis for a quick swim, as they had many times before. But this time, when Shea dove into the water, his head struck a rock and his life changed forever.

“I knew in that very instant,” he recalled. “I couldn’t move my arms. I didn’t feel any pain, anywhere. I was having trouble breathing. The water was beginning to rush into my nose and mouth. All I wanted to do was breathe, but I couldn’t hold my breath.”

Shea’s friend, a lifeguard, pulled him out of the water and onto the beach. He pinched his friend’s legs. Nothing. No feeling.

On that beautiful summer day, Shea became one of up to 337,000 people across the country living with a spinal cord injury. About eight out of 10 Americans who suffer this injury are men.

Today, at 33, the kids are his motivation, Shea said. They give him the courage to devote three hours each morning to getting out of bed and preparing for the day. They keep his mind off his own challenges. “If you dwell on your circumstances, it will take you down,” he said.

“I use my wheelchair to show the kids that you can turn a negative into a positive,” Shea said. “It has given me the ability to lift their spirits. Some of them don’t have a permanent home. Some have mothers who are addicts and fathers who have disappeared. They are underdogs just like I am.

“They let me talk to them about how to dress and act. They come up to me in the wheelchair and bump my fist, which is partially closed. That is like a pact,” he said.

Home away from home

The basketball league is about far more than sports and recreation.

Shea requires his kids to attend two mandatory events prior to the program: his “Lend a Hand Program” of community service projects and “Beyond Basketball,” which focuses on drug and alcohol abuse and awareness, diet and exercise, bullying and social media. It’s about what’s OK and what’s not.

The program also helps kids with their homework and tutoring, supported by volunteers who are current or former teachers, local professionals and college graduates.

The mission emanates from Shea’s own experience with drugs. Not the ones he experimented with as a teenager himself, but the drugs he took during his initial recovery—and to some extent even today—for the constant pain and insomnia.

“When I initially woke up from surgery, I was prescribed two pain pills every four hours, every day,” he recalls. “At that time, I did not ask doctors to take me off them because all I wanted to do was die.

“But, when I eventually got out of the hospital and rehab—after I promised my mother to make her proud—I asked myself, ‘How can I ever get out of this bed if I’m jacked up on pain medicine all the time?’

“I made a point of not taking them. At the end of the day, nothing would be more challenging than mentally facing reality.”

Winter and summer

Shea started the winter league with $10,000 of his own money and charitable donations. He rents the Hyannis Youth & Community Center basketball court on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s first-come, first-serve. There’s a draft to assure even teams and that everybody plays. There are no formal tryouts.

For many of the kids – nearly half come from single-parent households – the league becomes a home away from home.

“I have kids come as early as 12:30 and stay until 8:30. They don’t want to go home,” said Shea. “There’s food for them, and a nearby game room.”Jonah Shea YBA

In 2015, Shea expanded the winter program to a summer league, with a $14,000 grant from Cape Cod Healthcare to pay for uniforms and snacks for the kids and to help pay referees and the assistant director.

Last July and August, more than 100 kids between 11 and 16 gathered at Peter Homer Park in South Yarmouth on Mondays and Wednesdays and Johnny Kelly Park in South Dennis on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“We are truly a youth development program and will not tolerate players disrespecting other players, referees or coaches,” said Shea. “We have a strict ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy. We tell the kids and their parents to leave personal issues, bad mornings, conspiracy theories and attitudes at the door.”

Shea’s cell phone number is available to all the kids. He said it’s not unusual for him to get multiple calls a day from some of them, even in the middle of the night.

“Why do people take drugs? Anxiety, lack of confidence, low self-esteem. They don’t feel good about themselves,” Shea said. “I see our job as helping to build our kids’ confidence, give them a sense that we are there for them.’

Above Photo (L-R): Cheryl Bartlett, Executive Director of the Cape Cod Regional Substance Abuse Prevention Initiative (CCRSAPI) and Public Health and Jeffery Howell, volunteer coach and high school teacher at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional Highschool