Sports becomes a part of their journey to recovery

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Dean Robinson's team was trailing, but not by much. He needed Aaron Yingling, one of his top players, to get the team some points.

"Take the shot," Mr. Robinson, 56, yelled from the sidelines in the second half of the game, trying to instill confidence in his guard. "Take it like you mean it."

Yingling, 27, was getting the ball, but he was passing it off to teammates. His back to his coach, he stood just outside the 3-point line and took the shot.

"There you go," Mr. Robinson said as the ball flew through the air.

He missed. A few minutes later, his team lost, 38-32, in a hard-fought game by both teams. An hour earlier, as Yingling sat with his coach before the game started, he said that basketball, in many ways, is a lot like life.

"In life, you don't always win," he said. "Everything doesn't always go your way, just like on the court."

It has been a hard lesson for him to learn. But on this court, he's in good company.

Yingling plays in the New Horizons Sports League, a program for people who are among Allegheny County's homeless, mentally ill, those undergoing drug and alcohol rehabilitation or involved in court-mandated programs.

There are about 300, mostly men but some women, who play every year on the league's softball, volleyball, basketball and bowling teams, said Chris Scully, 61, director of the league.

"Some people, it's the first time they've ever had a number, they've ever been part of a team," he said.

New Horizons Sports League, a program of Community Human Services, started in 1989, and Mr. Scully took the helm a few months after its formation. He organizes about 250 games a year, with teams fielded by groups including Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center, Wood Street Commons, Mon Yough Community Services and Light of Life Rescue Mission. The games are competitive, with certified referees, score-keeping, playoffs, championships and trophies.

Playing sports can be part of a person's journey toward recovery, Mr. Scully said.

"For a couple of hours a week, people could kind of forget about the struggles they were going through," he said.

The program, funded by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services with Human Service Development Funds from the state, lost its financial support in 2011 in statewide budget cuts. Mr. Scully, who is now unemployed, has continued the program on a volunteer basis.

"We have not missed one sport since I lost my job," he said.

The game on a recent weekday night was between a team from the Allegheny County Treatment Alternative Program, a substance abuse treatment program for male offenders, and a team from Light of Life on the North Side, where men struggling with homelessness and addiction can make their recovery.

Mr. Robinson, coach for Light of Life's basketball and softball teams, has worked for the organization for four years as its community guest liaison, helping to improve the quality of life for men such as Yingling, a resident in an apartment managed by Light of Life.

Growing up in New Kensington, Yingling made good grades and played sports, but once he got to high school, he stepped out of bounds. He started smoking pot, then became addicted to heroin. He bounced around from place to place, without a home to call his own, and in 2006 was arrested for robbery and sent to jail. He got out, tried rehab unsuccessfully and ended up back in jail a few times for parole violations.

Four years ago, he arrived at Light of Life, and the next year, he started playing softball. At first, Mr. Robinson said, his new player struggled with asking for help, even for simple things like a softball glove or a ride somewhere.

His outlook was typical of people who have lived his lifestyle, soaking up the lessons of life on the street, Mr. Robinson said.

"It's a cutthroat life. You can only trust yourself."

Gradually, though, Yingling learned to play on a team, to work with others, to set goals and to listen to the advice of his coach and teammates.

On Thursday night, Yingling played most of the game, competing alongside a revolving lineup of seven other men. They wore white jerseys donated by a friend of Mr. Robinson's and yelled out encouragement and pointers during a game played aggressively by both teams.

Light of Life's loss brought their season record to 11-4. Yingling said he thought he played badly.

But his life is looking up. This spring, he plans to graduate from the Community College of Allegheny County with an associate's degree in social work. He wants to continue his studies and get a bachelor's degree in the same field.

Although he is several years into his recovery, he still plays in the New Horizons league, competing against men who have experienced struggles similar to his. There's a benefit to playing with people with shared life experience, Mr. Robinson said.

"These guys, you play against them tonight, you might see these guys at a meeting two weeks from now," he said.

Mr. Robinson would know. He joined the league as a player first, coming to the program after struggling with heroin addiction and spending time in jail. He has been clean now for 14 years.

New Horizons is certainly not all success stories, Mr. Scully said, but it has been part of the recovery process for many.

"We think that when you treat people with dignity and respect, that helps them to heal," he said.


Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.


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