Lea-ding kids to a better life

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

ALBANY -- How times change in 25 years.

Back in 1985, a gallon of gas was $1.20, Ronald Reagan was president and the No. 1 movie at the box office was "Back to the Future."

Jumpsuits were in, disco was out, and a young man named Michael Jordan had just finished his rookie year with the Chicago Bulls.

It was also the year Damascus-native Lea Henry, fresh off her gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, ran her first basketball camp in Albany.

A quarter-century later, that's one of the only things that hasn't changed, as Henry gets ready to host her 25th annual Camp of Champs at Deerfield-Windsor this week.

"I had always enjoyed going to camps when I was young. It was one of the highlights of my childhood," Henry said. "I wanted to go back to one of the communities I grew up in and create a fun environment for kids who enjoy basketball. So I started doing (the camps) every summer. It's kind of a way to give back."

For those who don't already know, Henry has done it all when it comes to basketball.

After attending high school at Southwest Georgia Academy, she was a four-year starter for the University of Tennessee (1979-83), a member of that gold medal women's basketball team in the 1984 Olympics and, eventually, the head women's basketball coach at Georgia State for 16 years.

On March 22, however, Henry decided it was time to do something different. She resigned from Georgia State to help her husband Greg Manning full time with Camp of Champs, Inc., a business that teaches character education and life skills for young people in a basketball atmosphere.

"I was just ready for a change," Henry said. "It was the right opportunity for both (me and my husband) ... The way the business was growing, it required both of us to do it. So it was just great timing for me.

"As for coaching, I think I'll get back into it if the opportunity presents itself."

Manning, a former basketball star at the University of Maryland and draft pick of the Denver Nuggets in 1981, and Henry have been running basketball camps for almost 30 years. Only this year, they're running 45 of them across eight states.

"We started out just doing (basic) basketball camps for kids because it's what Lea and I have done our whole lives," said Manning, who was in Little Rock, Ark., last week finishing up the last of six camps there. "But over the last five or six years we've added a little twist to it: character education. It's really neat for the kids and teaches them what they need to be successful in school and beyond."

That's what the camps are all about for Henry, and a big reason she's been doing them for so long.

"We've both been having a lot of fun doing this, but we're really trying to make a difference," Henry said. "We're providing a great atmosphere for kids, but we're trying to work with them on important character traits that will help them be successful later in life.

"(We tell them) things that I'm sure they hear every day, but it's nice to bring in different people and have great role models for them during the camp. People that have been successful and can tell their stories to them to try to motivate them."

And if repeat campers are any indication, it's working in Albany.

"(The Albany camp) is a camp where a lot of the same people come back every year," Henry said. "You have 6-year-old boys who keep coming until they're 16. That's what's really neat, to watch the students and the kids grow up and see them every year and be a part of their childhood growing up."

Two of those who grew up in the camp are on Henry's staff this year: Wes Williams, a football and baseball coach at Seminole County High School, and Jo Kimbrel, the former head women's basketball coach at SGA.

"I remember going to camp as a child and Jo being there," said Williams, who attended the camp from ages 5 to 16. "We've both always had a passion for basketball, so it's been pretty cool to see it all change from going to the camp to being a part of it.

"My mom was actually cleaning out the truck the other day and found some old trophies I won (at the camp)."

Williams and Kimbrel both said they have fond memories of Henry's camps, which is why they wanted to be involved.

"It's not too often that you have a bunch of people with a (basketball life) after high school come together like this," Kimbrel said.

But that's not the only reason Henry's camp is so effective.

"Sometimes when you go to those camps that have 300-to-500 campers, you're standing in line all day long," Henry said. "We keep our station groups small to give a bunch of kids individual attention. We keep our staff-to-student ratio 10-to-1."

That individual attention is particularly helpful for children who may be too shy to ask questions in front of a large group.

"Particularly in the small groups, you can't (stay in the background). Your turn's coming up," Henry said. "We make sure they're comfortable, but we ensure there is interaction with the children. You kind of take it down to their level, wherever they are.

"Part of learning is stepping up and doing something you've never done before. We really encourage that at the camp. We'll have 120 kids sitting on the floor and bring an individual kid up front to do a drill. It might be embarrassing, or they get nervous, but they do it and I think they feel good about themselves once they've done it."

Henry said they try to do that for every child this summer -- all 3,000 of them.

"Multiply 45 clinics by 60 or 70 (campers) and you'll see how many kids we're reaching," Henry said. "It's a lot more than coaching 10 or 15 kids (like I did when I was coaching)."

You could write a book about how committed Henry is to children - she and her husband spent the entire month of May just preparing for all the camps this summer and are going to spend next fall speaking at schools once they're done with camps - but there isn't enough room in this newspaper.

More importantly, her story isn't done yet - Henry said she wants to do this for as long as she can.

"I love kids," said Henry, who doesn't have any children of her own. "We're just trying to make a difference in a their lives."

And that's one thing that's not likely to change any time soon.