There, in a rainbow-colored pile of various sizes, conditions and penmanship, is emotion married to paper. The writings — some lengthy, some brief, all heartfelt — bounce among inspiration, empathy, conviction and concern.
All of those feelings are scattered across the desk of Des Moines (Iowa) North High School boys’ basketball coach Chad Ryan, falling out of envelopes and cards that overflow with caring.
The North High basketball players and coaches opened up their lives, the challenges they have overcome and those still being faced, for a story in the Des Moines Sunday Register two weeks ago headlined “The Buzzer Never Sounds.” What they have discovered about the unblinking access since then is that fighting the good fight means never truly being alone.
A stunning avalanche of support followed, with contributions expected to reach around $30,000 before weekend’s end.
Ryan walked into his office on a Tuesday, 48 hours after the story appeared, and was greeted with a wide smile and instructions: “Coach, you better check your mailbox.”
“We already had over 100 letters,” he said. “And it just kept coming. It’s not just one single, huge donation. It’s a lot of people, just doing what they can. Terri (Buban-Davis), who’s kept our (score)books forever, sat down and opened letters with me, and her eyes just teared up.”
The story outlined that 85 percent of North students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the most of any traditional high school in Iowa — though that would be even higher if all students returned the forms, Principal Michael Vukovich said. The basketball team, a microcosm of the student body, shared difficult stories of homelessness, imprisoned fathers and days without food at home.
The revelation: Those who rushed to offer support realized it’s little about what those involved at North High don’t have. It’s about what they do have — resilience, dogged determination for even better days and lessons that made so many of us blush at our relative good fortune.
Through the words — along with the images and video from the Register’s Charlie Litchfield — walls and barriers melted.
Reaction came from gritty neighborhoods and affluent suburbs, from sprawling metros to rural back roads. As of early last week, more than 250 people had written checks to the school, with the biggest contribution $1,000. Most landed between $15 and $100.
One letter came from a man who lived through the Depression and World War II. Another lamented about two grandchildren who liked basketball but failed to run into coaches like Ryan, Morgan Wheat or Taylor Phipps — and fell into drug dependency.
A 99-year-old woman who graduated from North High walked into the school unannounced, found Ryan and handed him $100. Another person walked in with a McDonald’s receipt for 20 hamburgers, explaining that he’d brokered a deal with a nearby store to honor the slip of paper when someone from North returned.
The student council at Ankeny Centennial High School then became the biggest contributor with a check for $1,200. (And a smidge of breaking news: The boys’ and girls’ basketball teams at crosstown Ankeny High School are supposed to arrive soon with a check for $1,700 and gift boxes with Gatorade, beef sticks and other goodies to be shared among the Polar Bear basketball teams.)
A woman called the Register, offering a bed that was still wrapped in the store plastic. Church groups phoned in to provide free clothes. And an agency left a note that offered career counseling and placement services. Administrators at a half-dozen schools across the state said they printed off the story and made their staffs read it.
Somewhere along the way, someone dropped off a mammoth fruit basket.
Buban-Davis — the basketball scorekeeper at North High since the 1991 team with godson Hurl Beechum reached the state tournament — helped go through letters with me on a recent visit.
The sentiments seemed more profound than the money that accompanied them. One wrote that the story “restores faith in humanity,” while another said of the coaches, “You are their strength and stability in a broken world.” One anonymous check reminded, “just know that I’m in your court.” Scores shared that their lives and accomplishments drove them to tears.
“It kind of shows that people here are winning, no matter what happens in the games,” said Buban-Davis, the person Ryan and the team call “Mom.”
On Friday night, one business owner took the entire team to a local Jethro’s restaurant for dinner. Vukovich, the North High principal, hinted that others have contacted them about helping secure a new van for Ryan, who drives nearly every morning and night to ensure players make it to school.
One person who read about Ryan’s busted phone and his plan to hang on until an upgrade in May hatched an idea to get one earlier.
The truth at North High: The entire school is in the middle of a transformation — hearts, minds, walls and all. The district sank millions into renovations, the school became the largest in Iowa to ensure that every student carries a laptop or iPad, and a 20 percent spike in test scores caused schools in Omaha, Kansas and Minnesota to visit and see how the results arrived.
Sizable and real challenges remain. Vukovich said two of the players on the basketball team slept on floors of homes within the last year, but in nearly the same breath he pointed out that most of the starters are taking advanced-placement courses.
The school eliminated in-school suspension — ending the practice that stuffs kids in quiet rooms without explanation or follow-up — and saw behavior-related cases plummet. “Discipline is not one of our key ingredients — relationships are,” Vukovich said. “We’re in it for the long haul, and you have to be for our students. How we judge things: How do they walk out of our doors as a 12th-grader, into the world? We give ourselves four years to really impact a kid.”
The impact at North has become nothing short of inspirational. One basketball team and its story showed just how much.
Bryce Miller also writes for the Des Moines Register.