REDMOND, Wash. – Nov. 4, 2009 – The phrase “nothing but net” isn’t heard all that often on basketball courts in the Philippines. More often than not, there is no net.
But as long as there’s a ball and a hoop—or something standing in for them—there’s probably a game going on in the many impoverished areas of the nation. Bill Hilf, general manager of Technical Computing at Microsoft, learned that two years ago when he was in the town of Cebu for a Microsoft summit. One morning, Hilf woke up early to beat the searing heat and set out for a jog. Soon after leaving his resort, he was running on dirt roads through slums.
Bill Hilf poses with the winner of last year’s sportsmanship award. “My job with High Five Hope is to continue to create an environment for them where they can see that hope,” he said.
He happened to pass some basketball courts where a group of homeless children were playing. Hilf caught their attention. “I’m 6 feet 4 inches, white, bald, and wearing running clothes, and here I come trucking through your village,” he recalled. All of a sudden he was surrounded by the youngsters, who started jogging along with him. Hilf, a lifelong basketball player, stopped to shoot hoops with them. The morning turned into a marathon four-hour jog/basketball game through the slums of Cebu.
Later that day at the summit, Hilf couldn’t get the youngsters out of his mind. When the conference ended, he went to a shopping mall and bought every basketball he could find. He crammed them into three taxi cabs and headed back to the courts. The children were still there. “They don’t have anything else to do or anywhere else to go,” Hilf said. He started handing out the 100 or so balls.
That event turned out to be the humble origins of High Five Hope, the nonprofit organization that Hilf founded shortly after returning to Seattle. High Five Hope strives to use sports to lift the spirit of homeless and underprivileged children in the Philippines while teaching them valuable life skills such as self-esteem, confidence, leadership and teamwork. Hilf’s organization partners year-round with local charities that work with children living on the streets. It also puts on an annual eight-week Hope Sports Fest in Manila.
Hilf is one of many Microsoft employees whose volunteer and charitable work has been spotlighted during Microsoft’s annual internal Giving Campaign, which ran from Oct. 5-30.
Hilf knows firsthand how sports can make a positive impact on children. His father died when he was 7, and a brother died when he was 9. Basketball and sports helped get him through those tough times. Now, he hopes that sports can do the same for children living on the streets of Manila.
He’s been encouraged by stories he’s heard so far. Recently Hilf was in Manila for the basketball and volleyball tournaments that mark the end of the Hope Sports Fest, in which more than 300 homeless children participated. On his first day there, he chatted with a 16-year-old boy whose team was heading to the basketball semifinals. The boy told Hilf about his life and how he had been in and out of jail for the past few years. He said that he had hope now and promised Hilf that he wouldn’t give up. Hilf asked if there was anything else he could do for the children. “He told me, ‘I don’t want you to give up. All these other kids out here, it means so much to us. But people are nervous that good things like this will be taken away.'”
Bill Hilf leads a ‘machine-gun’ passing drill during last year’s High Five Hope tournament.
Hilf said he’s learned that giving hope to someone who has none is not a trivial thing. “It’s a serious promise,” he said. “If we can’t sustain the program or fail in our mission, we can end up doing more harm than good.” But he’s continually amazed at how little it takes to help push a life in the right direction. “It doesn’t take a billion dollars from Warren Buffet to make an impact,” he said. “For 25 bucks, I can get a kid that lives on the street into a basketball program with shoes, a jersey, and food, for eight weeks. That’s what you and four friends spend at Starbucks. Would you bet 25 bucks on the possibility that it could change the course and direction of a kid’s life?”
Speaking just before the final games of the tournament, Hilf said he had a surprise in store for the children attending this year’s camp. After the championship basketball game, he was going to take all 300 kids to a professional basketball game. The game would be special for the children—it would feature a star of the Philippines Basketball Association who had grown up homeless. He had found his way out of poverty and despair through basketball, a story he had shared with the kids at the start of the Hope Sports Fest.
“For them to see that role model, they can think ‘OK, I may never be a professional basketball player, but I can get off the street and off drugs. There is light I can get to eventually. I can succeed.’ My job with High Five Hope is to continue to create an environment for them where they can see that hope,” Hilf said.