Home / Sports / Playing The Field: Bernell Hooker
Friday, Aug. 29, 2014

Playing The Field: Bernell Hooker

The Images of Us founder on empowering young women through sports

bernell hooker_resized
Google+ Pinterest Print

In Playing the Field, we profile women who are making an impact in the world of sports, either in competition or behind the scenes. For this inaugural installment, we spoke with Images of Us Sports founder Bernell Hooker.

The Women’s Sports Foundation contends that high school girls who play sports are less likely to experience unintended pregnancy, more likely to get better grades and more likely to graduate than girls who do not play sports. They say girls and women who play sports have higher levels of confidence and self-esteem and lower levels of depression.

Bernell Hooker, founder and CEO of the Milwaukee non-profit Images of Us Sports sees those truths played out on the court every day. She founded Images of Us after more than two decades of playing and coaching girls and women’s basketball in the greater Milwaukee area.

“Our mission is to empower girls to achieve their best through sports,” Hooker says. “That achievement comes through whatever level they are … to catch them at the point where we can help them pull their strengths out so that they will think about getting higher education, but the whole piece is also getting girls to have an interest in working in the field of sports. We need more women coaches; we need more women administrators; we need more women athletic trainers—anything that has to do with the field of sports.”

Not content with merely providing physical programming for young girls, Hooker actually created the idea for a non-profit when she was coaching college basketball. She would recruit local players who were completely unfamiliar with the process and she remembers that she and her parents were also clueless about all the necessary steps and rules when she herself was a college player. The non-profit initially grew out of Hooker’s desire to make sure that local players who didn’t have anybody to teach them or guide them through the process were aware of the correct steps.

The natural development of Images of Us (IOU) was to add in camps and leagues that developed the skills of younger players prior to the recruitment process. Hooker saw programs like AAU that were for elite-level basketball players, but saw a dearth of programs that were taking the raw talent of young girls that had never learned basic basketball skills. Her summer basketball program is meant to find some of those rough diamonds that might never have played organized ball and have never been coached.

The summer program takes the basics of Hooker’s basketball coaching talent and adds in the off-court lessons about leadership, competition and self-esteem. The programs at IOU charge a nominal fee, usually around $40. Hooker says the fee ensures that both parent and child are committed to showing up for every session, but isn’t prohibitive for any family. The summer programs run anywhere from four to 10 weeks. Putting a fee on the program keeps everyone honest, Hooker says, and also gives the girls a sense of pride and accomplishment when they are able to bring in their money and pay off what they owe.

In many ways, IOU Sports is Hooker’s one-woman show. She receives support from the volunteers and generous donations, but the passion and guiding force behind the organization is all hers. She’s committed to making IOU a success not just in Milwaukee, but across the country, though she admits that there are days when the kids can be too much or her office feels empty.

“I love what I do,” she says. “I have a lot of fun. The girls get me upset sometimes. But at the end of the day they look at me with their big eyes and I think, ‘I did that today.’ It gets lonely. It gets really lonely. You have to go in there and tune everything out and make things happen for your organization. What’s difficult is to make people see that sports is important for girls. Sports is a business that little girls are being left out of understanding and learning and we need to invest in our girls. It’s our girls who are getting pregnant. It’s our girls who are being violently abused ... It has to change. It’s an investment in knowing these young ladies are going to grow up and they're going learn from this. They’re going to get their education and they're going to make some changes.”

IOU Sports is not just basketball. When we spoke, Hooker was planning a weekend extravaganza at the King Center and was specifically adding soccer in the wake of the recent World Cup, having found a volunteer who could teach some basics. The organization recently took a group of girls horseback riding, overcoming the fears of many participants. Hooker said she’ll be adding a golf component in the coming year and had been approached to include BMX biking. She's unlikely to turn down any request or any offer by a coach or player to come in and teach.

“We’re going to increase our sports participation, but it’s the same concept—developing your skills, educating yourself about the process of what you need to complete in high school in order to play in college,” she says. “There’s compliance. There’s SATs. There’s so much these kids need to know and no one’s telling them. So if we prepare them and now they can tell [their friends], there’s the leadership piece.

In addition to the physical component of teaching girls sports skills, IOU is interested in making sure that girls know what job options are available to them. From trainers to statisticians and many other roles in between, Hooker wants her charges to learn about and possibly start on a career path that keeps them around athletics. And in order to obtain these positions, the girls need an education. For Booker, it’s all important and all connected.

“When you work through the NCAA you see how it’s a business,” she says, “and in that business you have people doing all different kinds of things, but it’s all related to sports ... It’s a billion dollar business and there’s room for you to learn and grow and work in the field. I don’t care what route you take, the key is getting your education and doing something productive afterwards. Everyone has a different road and I want them to see what’s open to them.”

Hooker is rarely idle. Whether her office phone is ringing or her cell phone is vibrating or someone is peeking their head in the door, Hooker is the heart of what IOU is creating at the King Center. She recently quit her “real world” job to focus on IOU part time and throughout the course of the interview she mentioned three or four different, tangential projects she has in the works. All of them relate to the goals of IOU and empowering young girls, but perhaps none could have farther reaching implications than the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Academy that she’s looking to fund.

STEM is an area that’s generally not a focus for girls, so Hooker’s interest in this avenue is not surprising or difficult to understand—it’s a natural extension from the work she already has in place at IOU. For her young charges to be successful applicants to programs for physical training or statistics, they need to succeed in these areas of the classroom.

“We are developing a curriculum for STEM,” she says. “It’s our IOU Sports STEM Academy. I just completed a grant application for that. We’re hoping and praying that we do get that funding. It’s a six week program for both middle school and high school girls. We have a component of self-awareness. Then we bring them in and do sports activities. They have to have physical activity in order to free their minds. They need to see what STEM looks like [in action] and they’ll meet the women that work in the field. That’s a summer program but it will also lead into the school year. It’s going to spark that interest. That’s where the jobs are.”

IOU Sports has been years in the making for Hooker, but she doesn’t see the support of girls and women’s sports as coming in baby steps. Despite dispiriting statistics about media coverage of women’s sports, Hooker is encouraged. She sees tangible evidence every day of the success of girls’ sports programs.

“There is a fanbase for girls and women,” she says. “It’s getting there, slowly but surely. I think more people need to let other people know, ‘I’m a fan of women’s sports and there’s nothing wrong with it.’ And it is different than male sports, and it’s OK. You don’t need to compare them. It doesn’t need to be the same. It’s a different form of entertainment, just like tap dancing is different from ballet. We need to embrace it and support it—support these young girls. Get groups of women to go out to these games. Make them feel important.”

Find more information about IOU Sports at iousports.org.