A yearslong vision became a reality for Matt Hanna when a custom-built space for his nonprofit, Next One Up, opened this week to support his student athletes seven days a week.
Located at Belvedere Square, the Next One Up’s Base Camp includes enough space to meet the academic, athletic and social development needs of 190 young men in Baltimore, with more than 100 on the waitlist. The program will select 25 students to join this year.
As a former Baltimore City school teacher and sports coach, Hanna saw a lack of “safe and accessible” after-school programming for student athletes outside of seasonal practices and games when he began teaching at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in 2009.
He thought about how he could excite a group of guys through physical fitness using a model that replicates a school, but the “best school the guys ever attended.” They are now alums of the program who have been tracked to “return and pull the next one up,” Hanna explained, adding that the program mentors young men as early as 12 years old and works with them well into adulthood.
“I’ve been at this for 15 years, and the bonds I have with the guys from the early days are stronger than they’ve ever been,” he said. “And what we’re realizing is as much as the world wants to make every conversation about race, it’s about love and respect.“
In the beginning, he started meeting with the students on the weekends in Patterson Park to work out and talk about life after graduation. In 2014, he quit teaching and pursued his nonprofit full time.
“I didn’t know anything about nonprofit work. I just knew that I wanted to make a bigger difference than I could in my classroom,” Hanna said.
What Hanna started as “informal” weekend basketball games and financial assistance to attend summer sports camps created an opportunity for summer programming, Hanna said. By 2014, Next One Up had adopted a yearlong program structure for students to meet on the weekends and during the summer, either outdoors or in borrowed space.
“It’s not just a physical space; it’s a place where dreams are nurtured, potential is unlocked and lasting impacts are made. … We want the boys’ time,” Hanna said.
From 3:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., the students are expected to show up on time, turn in their phones and commit to the four-part program, which consists of weight room training, workforce development, leadership curriculum and STEM education.
The 14,000-square-foot facility in North Baltimore is fully equipped with a gym, academic classrooms and a maker space with 3D printers and a computer work area for robotics and engineering activities.
Also, the restaurant chain Nalley Fresh will prepare healthy meals such as salads, wraps and bowls, Monday through Thursday, while Fridays will serve as the students’ meal “cheat” day for not-so-healthy foods, such as pizza and burgers. The weekends will offer more grab-and-go items.
“We want to help position them to have as many experiences as possible while in the building and have it all attached to one vision, which is for them to be great. This is not just to keep them occupied. We want them walking out every night saying ‘I got better today,’” Hanna said.
Diallo Gainey, a 19-year-old alum, said Next One Up helped him find purpose after he joined the program in middle school. Gainey said the nonprofit helped him obtain his barber license, and now he has his own chair at Base Camp where he provides free haircuts for younger members.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what I was going to do coming out of Mervo [high school] because I came up playing sports. It was all sports, sports, sports. And once COVID hit, things changed. I had to figure out my future and college wasn’t in mine,” Gainey said.
He fell in love with barbering after he started cutting his brother’s hair and watching YouTube videos about the craft. And once he shared his newfound passion with Hanna and another coach from the program, Gainey said, they didn’t hesitate to help him out.
“I needed the structure in my life — I have to have some type of system to go by. Being able to go there every Sunday, gave me that. And it taught me so much more than how to be better on the field, it showed me like how to be a man and speak to people and things like that,” he added.
Hanna is confident in Base Camp’s methodology from personal and practical experience. As a former lacrosse player at Johns Hopkins University, he knows all too well how discipline as a team player develops personal traits such as commitment, responsibility, personal and emotional health that can all be carried over into college and a career, he said.
“What it took to be successful as an athlete transferred right into my time as a teacher and a coach. So it was important that I think of all the values I learned from sport and build up this organization with the same mindset. Regardless of your background, I would say that this program is about boys becoming men,” Hanna said. “This is replicable in any community.”
Next One Up raised more than $5.3 million from private, corporate and state entities for Base Camp’s buildout and future programming at the facility. According to Hanna, the camp is projected to serve 10,000 meals, 400 hours of academic instruction and 300 hours of athletic training.
Next, Hanna and his team will begin setting their sights on obtaining space for basketball programing and eventually more facilities like Base Camp around the city.
“This was not an easy path and where we are right now is a long evolution. We borrowed a lot of people’s spaces, and we’ve never really had full access during the week to a space for our guys. So this is just a whole new level that we’ve arrived at,” Hanna said.