Charlotte Thomas-Rowe – Hurdles2Hoops using basketball to change lives

“I wanted to use sports to enable people to get to places where they've never been before. Because basketball literally changed my life.”

These are the words of Charlotte Thomas-Rowe, a professional basketball player, who started Hurdles2Hoops – a community interest company (CIC) that engages asylum seekers and refugees in London with physical activity sessions and educational workshops to promote better health and well-being, and to tackle exclusion and alleviate mental health problems.  

The 29-year-old’s basketball journey began with the London Youth Games, when she represented Ealing as a teenager.

From there she would go onto play for Peckham Pride under the tutelage of Sterling Muschett in the National Basketball League, before eventually signing her first professional contract with Lemvig Basket in the Danish Dameligaen (now Kvindebasketligaen).

Charlotte Thomas-Rowe playing for Lemvig Basket in the Danish women's league

The Adika Project

Further stints playing in Canada, Italy, Bosnia and Iceland gave Thomas-Rowe a deeper understanding of how sport can help people overcome adversity.

Case in point is the story of one of her Lemvig teammates, Okako Adika, who sought asylum with her family in Denmark after the outbreak of the second Congolese war in 1998, which displaced 1.2 million people.

Granted refugee status in Denmark, Adika would grow up to excel in basketball and in 2023 was drafted to the WNBA by New York Liberty.

So when, during the pandemic, Thomas-Rowe received a life-changing multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis that brought her fledgling pro ball career to a grinding halt, she decided, with a little encouragement from her sister, to keep herself busy by running her own charitable basketball sessions for asylum seekers and refugees, who are disadvantaged and often marginalised in society.

The first programme she ran was named the Adika Project.  

“I realised how much sport has helped me and [took me to all] the places I got to go,” said the Londoner, who has a background in volunteering for charities to help those in need, including putting on basketball sessions for the Marylebone Project, a homelessness organisation for vulnerable women.

“Every day, I wish I could go back to playing, but at least I can give someone the opportunity maybe they wouldn't have had.

“It creates confidence. All the projects that we do are just a steppingstone, whether it’s mental health, whether it’s grassroots sport. I just want them to use sports or therapies as a way to help themselves because they literally have nine pound a week to live off. Other than that, they have their hotel room to stay in the whole day. There's nothing else for them to do.”

Participants enjoy a Hurdles2Hoops yoga session

The kids are a little bit cocky

Currently, Hurdles2Hoops, which is entirely staffed and organised by Thomas-Rowe, runs a myriad of projects, including basketball sessions, as well as football, boxing, dancing, strength and conditioning, kickboxing, swimming, yoga, art and music therapy, crochet and meditation classes.

Its biggest funder is Active Westminster and the money is used to help people, who come from all corners of the world seeking refuge from war, conflict and persecution, to access free sports sessions and activities at good facilities and with good coaches.  

But what kind of difference has it made to their lives?

“With the kids that play basketball, some of them are a little bit cocky,” joked Thomas-Rowe.

“There's a lot of improvement with those playing sports because we have done that for longer, especially, the kids because they do basketball twice a week.

“Just generally, people will just message and say thank you because they've been feeling depressed. They've been in a hotel all day. And it kind of gives them something to do. Some of them will attend every activity I put on in a week just so they can get out of the hotel. I can tell it’s making a difference.”

Thomas-Rowe wants to play 3x3 for Jamaica

Unfinished business

Thomas-Rowe, who is of Jamaican and Grenadian descent, would eventually like to roll out the projects across all of London’s 32 boroughs and officially become a charity.

Plus, she’s still got unfinished business with basketball to attend to, eyeing up a return to the court to play 3x3 for Jamaica.

“I still train five times a week," she adds.

“I do want good stuff to happen with Hurdles2Hoops. But I also do want to kind of recover because it would be nice to compete again.

“I love the summer. It’s my favourite thing about basketball, Ball Out, NBA 3X. I love all those tournaments.

“In 2021, I finally got the call up from my national team of Jamaica. And that was exactly when I got diagnosed. I was just so distraught because I would have been representing my national team in 3x3.

“I have my own goals and aspirations I want for basketball. And I feel like it's unfinished business.”

As part of International Women's Day and celebrating women in the month of March, Thomas-Rowe would like to mention the women who have helped her throughout her career and with Hurdles2Hoops.

"Darnelle Morgan-Johnson for being one of my biggest supporters, who directed a video feature of me for the NBA's channels and regularly donates to the organisation and inspires me daily with her strength. [Artist] Sevian Witter who donates many items to Hurdles2Hoops so the kids have basketball shoes and the adults have athletic clothing and Rikke Meisner, who helped start my basketball journey by connecting me with my first professional club, Lemvig Basket.