“We’re just missing a whole lot,” Joe Vizzari says, ruminating on the current state of things. Thinking back to his New York upbringing in the 50’s and 60’s, he later adds, “To me it was God, family, and basketball. God, family, and my center.
“Everybody was the same, everybody was equal, everybody got to play, everybody got to share,” he explains. “We’ve kind of gotten away from that.”
Vizzari has plans to bring it back.
Vizzari and his childhood friend Joe Posillipo, along with a team of five others, are currently seeking out funding options to open a faith-based community center for area families, Crusaders through Christ Academy, in the Graham/East Burlington area.
It would be the third of its kind for Vizzari, who operated two centers in his home state; one, which was connected to a school, shut its doors when the school closed in 1994. That center had 375 youth and offered programs for children and adults, a game room, a gym, and trips, Vizzari told The Alamance News this week.
Still, the inspiration for those centers and the one that Vizzari and his team are now setting out to establish harkens back to his and Posillipo’s childhood in Port Chester, New York, a suburban village just south of the state’s border with Connecticut.
“Our community was very, very small,” he remembers, “so everybody knew everybody. But we had a center ever since I was five or six years old.”
The center, run through his school, held after-school programs that included homework help, game rooms, and sports, as well as programs for adults.
“It was something that we always had growing up,” he says. “It was part of our culture and life growing up. We were blessed to have something that great.”
As teenagers coming of age, Vizzari says that the center, one of two that he attended, also played a part in keeping him and others off the streets.
Though that’s always been part of the motivation behind the centers he’s attended and helped establish, he explains that there are more layers, more benefits, to what a center offers.
One of those, he says, is helping youth become “physically, mentally, and spiritually connected with themselves and God.”
“One saying that we always had when I was growing up was, ‘What the mind sees, the body can achieve,’” he explains. “So, we need to be physically, mentally, and spiritually strong in order to succeed and become good people in society today.”
Another goal, he says, is simply to bring people together — across different communities and demographics — and help them get along.
Though the initial focus is reaching out to low-income families who aren’t able to afford memberships in facilities elsewhere, Vizzari says that no one would be excluded from the proposed center.
“What we want the center to help people realize is that nobody is better than anybody else,” he says. “Everybody is made the same way in God’s eyes.”
Looking to the long-term, he hopes to see youth who grow up in the center become role models for their communities.
“If you leave a good mark on them and you put them in a position where they can succeed and move on, they’re going to look back and want to help, especially if they’re still living in the community” Vizzari explains. “I really believe that.”
Some of the ways he’s seen former members of his centers give back is through assistant coaching, donations, and Big Brothers Big Sisters programs, which pair youths with adult volunteer mentors in their 20’s or early 30’s.
A basketball coach for decades
After his center closed in 1994, Vizzari began coaching basketball at Trinity Catholic High School in Connecticut, a position that he retired from last June.
For almost 40 years, he’s travelled each summer to Chapel Hill to join around 100 other coaches for a two-week basketball camp that hosts between 800 and 1,000 children from around the world.
It was during those two-week stints that Vizzari met Don Pinney, owner of Sutton’s Drug Store, which opened a sister restaurant in Graham in 2017. Pinney, he says, has been instrumental in introducing him to community members in Alamance County. The restaurateur and his wife, Amy, have also housed Vizzari in recent weeks in the face of coronavirus concerns that have kept him from returning to New York.
“They’re a God-send,” he says of the couple. “I’m blessed to have people in my life like that.”
Despite Vizzari’s nearly life-long devotion to basketball, he says he realizes the need for the proposed Alamance County center to have activities that aren’t sports-related, including tutoring and computer classes.
“This is not all about a sports thing,” he says. “This is all about a center, and you have to be multi-faceted; you have to have many things for the kids to do.”
Proposed project on hold during pandemic
Though Vizzari and his team are still seeking funding sources, he said that much of the process has temporarily been put on hold until the coronavirus pandemic passes.
“If we can start this thing up soon, it’d be nice; it’d be a God-send,” he told the newspaper. “Right now we need to take care of [the pandemic], and after we take care of this, then we’ll move on with our project. The world is more important right now than we are.”
Aside from Vizzari, Posillipo, and Pinney, the team behind the project is comprised of Rocky Coyle, Max Owens, Torey Thomas, and Ted Sabato.
If the proposed center is established, Vizzari says he plans to move to the area.