Athletes in Mission Sports Academy holds summer camps for kids
By Janae Rempel
Nate Ayers heard God speak while on an MB Mission ACTION-Basketball trip to Thailand. A basketball coach and teacher from Kingsburg, Calif., Ayers sensed God calling him to bring a similar ministry back home to California.
This summer, Ayers’ dream became a reality when his nonprofit organization, Athletes in Mission Sports Academy, hosted three free basketball camps for children in the Fresno area in partnership with local Mennonite Brethren churches.
With the goal of providing training and sharing God’s love, the camps followed the pattern of MB Mission’s ACTION-Basketball trips, for which Ayers serves as coach. MB Mission is the holistic church planting ministry of North American Mennonite Brethren that transforms communities among the least reached.
Love of basketball takes Ayers to Thailand
Ayers says he fell in love with the game of basketball in junior high. He played high school ball at Madera, then competed collegiately for a year at Fresno Pacific University. He says he chose to pursue a career in teaching so he could coach.
A school teacher of 18 years, Ayers has coached basketball at Immanuel High School in Reedley, Calif., Sanger (Calif.) High School and at his current school, Abraham Lincoln Middle School in Selma, Calif., where he serves as eighth grade U.S. history teacher.
He and his wife, Amy, have two children: Aliya (10) and Aden (6).
A member of Kingsburg (Calif.) MB Church, Ayers went on a vision trip to Thailand in 2007. During the trip, Ayers, missionary Ricky Sanchez and Mark Thompson, MB Mission short-term mission mobilizer, engaged in conversation about future ministry opportunities. One idea they considered was to send college-age basketball teams on short-term trips to Thailand to provide a catalyst for ministry.
That vision was realized in 2009 when MB Mission’s ACTION-Basketball was born. Athletes traveled to Thailand to put on free clinics in schools as well as compete against university and semi-pro teams.
Ayers was the assistant men’s coach on that first ACTION-Basketball trip, and he has since participated in trips in 2011, 2013 and 2015 as the head men’s basketball coach.
“We’ve gone on four different trips, and it’s just continued to grow,” he says. “It’s been a tremendous thing to be a part of, just to see God at work through these athletes that are serving in Thailand.”
Now, Ayers works part-time for MB Mission as the director of ACTION-Basketball, recruiting, training and forming teams.
God prompts Ayers to bring his vision home
During a particularly stressful trip to Thailand in 2013, Ayers says he sensed God speaking to him. One day toward the end of the trip, Ayers cried out to God in exhaustion.
“I just felt the Lord speaking to me through this stress and exhaustion of it all,” he says. “It kind of sounds weird, but almost in an audible voice, he said, ‘Take this same work that you’re doing in Thailand and bring it home and do it where you are.’”
Ayers says he had already decided to take a break from coaching, and upon arriving back in California, he used the opportunity to earn his master’s degree in coaching and athletic administration from Concordia University Irvine.
At the end of the program, Ayers had the opportunity to visualize his dream of starting a nonprofit sports academy that would not only teach basketball skills but also share God’s love.
“I finally was able to put to paper what I had been thinking and dreaming about—about what God had planted in my heart,” he says. “(I) was able to draw up the bylaws and draw up everything as part of this program.
“And then I sat on it. I turned it in—I completed the program—but I didn’t act on anything.”
God nudged him again on another trip to Thailand.
“During the 2015 trip through MB Mission, almost in another audible voice, I almost heard God saying, ‘Enough thinking. Do it,” Ayers says. “When I got home, I started the paperwork.”
Within a few months, Ayers says his nonprofit organization, Athletes in Mission Sports Academy, was approved, and he began fundraising.
AIM’s mission is to empower athletes, serve God and impact communities.
“The whole idea of it is to empower athletes to impact communities for Christ and the development of young athletes in a positive, Christ-centered environment,” Ayers says, adding that AIM also provides opportunities for high school and college age athletes to serve in leadership roles in their communities through mentoring and discipleship.
AIM works with local churches, volunteers
For the first time this summer, AIM hosted three free basketball camps for children ages 8-14 over a two-week span in July.
Ayers recruited four athletes, ranging in age from high school to recent college graduate, to join him as coaches for each five-day camp.
With the goal of follow-up and discipleship a priority, Ayers partnered with local churches that provided pastors to speak at the camps.
Churches supplied additional volunteers, and Ayers says his wife, Amy, was integral in putting together a welcome table for volunteers as well as coordinating the registration table.
Each day of camp began with a brief overview of the day’s theme, followed by warm-ups and stretching. The children then split into stations by age to work on basketball drills such as ball-handling, shooting, dribble attack, speed and agility and defense. Kids spent between 15-20 minutes at each station before rotating to the next.
A teaching time followed the station work, during which the coaches shared their testimonies. Ayers then divided kids into teams to work with a coach during a half-hour practice.
On the last day of camp, Ayers substituted stations for an extended team time and scrimmages, after which a local pastor gave a message and invitation for kids to accept God’s love. Each child was given a Bible on the last day of camp.
Children find Jesus at basketball camps
At AIM’s first camp July 5-9, Ayers partnered with North Fresno MB Church’s summer Venture Club to host a basketball camp. More than 50 children attended, and at the end Ayers says five accepted Christ.
“The idea is now that a local church, the North Fresno church, is going to follow up and disciple those kids who raised their hands, because we have their names and contact information,” he says. “And that’s already happening.”
Ayers shares the story of a girl in foster care from a broken family who came to the camp after seeing it advertised on a flyer. Ayers’ daughter, who was the same age, befriended her and helped point her to Jesus.
“My daughter just listened as this girl poured her heart out about her pain and her frustration, and my daughter responded with, ‘Well you know, God loves you, and he wants to take that pain away from you,’” Ayers says. “It was just amazing to see a 10-year-old lead someone to Christ. That little girl raised her hand at the end, and she accepted Christ into her heart that day at the very end of camp.”
The following week, July 11-15, AIM hosted two basketball camps, one in the morning at Holmes Park in partnership with Neighborhood Church, and another in the afternoon in Selma in partnership with Selma MB Church.
Ayers says about 30 kids came to the morning camp, despite hot temperatures outside.
Two weeks prior to the camp, there had been a drive-by shooting in front of a nearby apartment complex, and some of the children at the basketball camp had witnessed the tragedy. At camp, they were given hope, says Ayers.
“It was really tough to see that, but in the midst of all of that sadness, the kids that had to witness that tragedy were the same kids that were at our camp hearing about the hope that God gives,” he says.
In teaching on James 1:12, Ayers and his team spoke about perseverance through trials.
“We got to talk, having really honest conversations about perseverance and trials,” Ayers says. “These kids know that, and there (were) three kids that raised their hands at the end to accept Christ through that camp. Now they’re being mentored by Neighborhood Church as well. So (it was) just real amazing. Even though it was small and hot, it was still just a blessing.”
In the afternoon, AIM held a basketball camp at Abraham Lincoln Middle School where Ayers teaches.
Ayers said they averaged about 75 kids per day, and at the end of camp, six children accepted Jesus.
“I got to talk with each and every one of them at the end and give them a hug and tell them that God loves them,” Ayers adds. “It was just a whirlwind; just an amazing time to be able to bless these kids.”
Funding essential when camps are free
The free nature of AIM’s basketball camps levels the playing field for families who may not otherwise be able to afford to send their children to camp.
“Everyone’s on equal footing,” Ayers says. “It’s not the rich kids that get to participate in these things. It’s everybody that gets to participate.”
AIM is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and all donations made are tax deductible. Ayers says funding for the basketball camps has come via donations and out of his own pocket. Ayers hopes to begin fundraising this fall to make up some of the cost and begin planning for AIM’s next event.
Those interested in making a donation to the ministry may do so on AIM’s website, aimsportsacademy.org.
Ayers' dream for the future
In addition to basketball camps, Ayers plans to start a training program for junior high and high school athletes when school starts. The goal of the program is to provide low-cost training and discipleship as well as to develop leadership. Ayers says he also plans to host a free basketball clinic once a week for six weeks after school in Selma.
Eventually, Ayers would like for AIM to have a facility of its own.
“I’m fortunate enough now to have access to a facility through my school because I teach there, and they’ve been gracious with me, but there’s still a small cost with that,” he says. “My hope and dream and goal would be to have our own facility, but as of right now, we have to take what we can get.”
Plans are in the works for a possible spring break camp, as well as another basketball camp next summer.
Ayers says his hope is to grow the ministry to include more sports in addition to basketball.
“We feel very fruitful, very effective in showing love to a community and helping local churches as well,” he says. “We’re helping (raise) up future leaders through sports, but (at) the same time, giving opportunities for these athletes to give back to their communities.”
Photos provided by AIM Sports Academy
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