More Than Basketball
Basketball has always been important to Isaiah Salafia. The game not only helped him get a four–year scholarship to Yale University, but also directed him to The Salvation Army, where he leads the territory’s Pathway of Hope (POH) initiative.
Salafia’s story began in Cromwell, Conn., where his grandfather, Jake, is a Hall of Fame high school basketball coach who won seven state titles. The Cromwell High School gym is named after Jake Salafia.
Isaiah also grew up hearing plenty of stories about the basketball exploits of his father, Steve, and Uncle Joe. However, when it was Isaiah’s turn, he scored more points and made more All–State teams than his father or uncle. He also was an All–American nominee and won a state title.
“I had more records than all of them,” Isaiah says with a smile. “Now, I rub that in their faces every now and again.
“It was difficult at times, living up to the household name and tradition, but it definitely fashioned me into a mature individual much faster.”
Salafia’s mother, Trish, was an English teacher, his father a firefighter in Middletown, Conn. “My parents both made sure I was focused. I was always either on the basketball court or in a book. I got good balance from both of my parents,” he says.
That combination of athleticism and intellect landed Salafia at Yale, where he made the first shot he took in college, a 3–pointer at Mohegan Sun Arena.
But the shot was not a harbinger of things to come. On the next play, Salafia dove for a loose ball, slid into another player, and suffered a concussion.
As his sophomore season progressed, his playing time diminished.
“I didn’t set any records in college as far as basketball went, but I made some great relationships,” Salafia said.
“Everyone coming in at a Division I level is an incredible player. Something that was difficult for me in the moment was coming to the realization that we all have these identities. For me, my identity, with my background and family, I was a basketball player.”
Salafia said his experience at Yale taught him that he was much more than a basketball player—he was someone who wanted to make a difference in the world.
“Here I was, at one of the most prestigious universities in the world,” Salafia says. “I obviously have a head on my shoulders. I’m also an intellectual and I desire to have an impact on society.
“Coming to the realization that I didn’t have a one–dimensional identity was huge for me.”
Still, it was basketball that helped Salafia get his first job out of college.
While working at a summer basketball camp at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., Salafia coached and mentored the son of Brenda Downing, who is the director of social services for The Salvation Army in Southern New England.
Downing asked Salafia what his plans were after college. He had earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, but saw limited job prospects in that specific field without a graduate degree.
The year was 2014 and The Salvation Army was still helping families recover from Hurricane Sandy, which had hit the East Coast a year and a half earlier. Downing urged Salafia to apply for a case manager position.
“That gave me the opportunity I needed and showed me the profound impact I could have on individuals and families, even by just sitting and listening,” Salafia said.
In 2016, Salafia became the regional coordinator in the Southern New England Division for The Salvation Army’s POH initiative. In February of this year, he became the POH coordinator for the entire Eastern Territory.
“Going from a disaster case manager to regional coordinator for Pathway of Hope allowed me to step back and really have more of an influence on policies and procedures,” he said. “This is a similar move for me.
“Although I’m not working with the families in the field, which is obviously rewarding, I felt I could be more impactful, with the perspective and experience I have, if I was at an administrative level.”
A new challenge
Salafia, 26, will now get that chance to be impactful every day as the POH coordinator. The initative is designed to help repeat emergency assistance applicants move beyond crisis and overcome the barriers keeping them in poverty.
From his experience in the field, Salafia said people may think poor families lack the “grit” or motivation to get beyond their circumstances, but he believes what they’re really lacking is opportunity.
“That is something that has been instilled in me through my own good fortune,” he said. “I was provided great opportunities. I see other individuals who are fully capable of achieving great things who have never been given that opportunity until now. Seeing them take advantage of it and thrive has been huge for me. The work is motivating.
“Maybe I won’t change the world. Maybe I’ll just change the world for one individual, but maybe that’s all it takes. I can come in here to a local corps, sit down with a family, and profoundly impact their lives. Why is that not enough? I think it is.”
The real world
Early in his freshman year after arriving in New Haven, Conn., Salafia learned a valuable lesson about poverty. He met an older woman who walked with a cane. She told him she had a check to cash, but didn’t want to walk six blocks to Western Union.
The good–natured Salafia cashed the check for her, but soon learned it was fake. He lost $700.
“I was really upset for a couple of days. About three weeks later, I saw her on the street with no coat,” he recalls. “I realized that, if she can put that $700 to better use than I can, then it’s better that she has it.
“Initially there was definitely culture shock, but it’s also been enlightening and revealing to learn how much need there is in the world and how we can respond to that need at times without even knowing it.”
With a degree from Yale, Salafia knows he could make more money in the private sector, but that’s clearly not what drives him.
“There are things I value more than economic stability and one is having an impact on society,” says Salafia. “I’m young enough to almost naively believe we can genuinely make a difference.
“We always think we want something or need something. That’s human nature, to desire things. But I think if you desire change or you desire some impact on society, that’s more beneficial than any material thing you could have.”
Meanwhile, Salafia said employers are not only looking for a quality degree, but also experience. He realizes he’s getting the latter with The Salvation Army.
“With this experience I’m garnering with The Salvation Army, this is invaluable,” he said. “It’s not all about money, it’s about experience. I would never sacrifice my own development for money. It’s not something that’s worthwhile.
“I’m a man of few needs. I don’t really need a lot. I need shelter and a roof over my head. I need a good book and I need people around me who love me. I have a great support system with my family.”
Salafia said while he sometimes worships at The Salvation Army, another support system and motivator is his Catholic faith. While still in middle school, he served on the Parish Council at his local church.
What makes him tick
“That’s where I would pinpoint my desire to impact the world in a positive manner and to help people,” he said. “That’s all been instilled in me through my faith. My faith is everything. It’s my fallback. It’s my strength. It’s my rock.
“If you don’t have faith to fall back on, it’s easy to say why? Why am I doing this? However, if you have faith and you know this is serving a purpose—and not just my purpose, but a larger purpose—then how can you really wane as far as your motivation? It’s your responsibility to act. My faith has instilled in me a responsibility.”
Salafia said he sees the evidence of the eternal impact he is making every single day. One woman being helped through POH brings her children to the New Haven, Conn., Corps.
“If we can do those type of things by showing up for work every day, I’ll show up for work every day,” Salafia said. “The biggest thing for me is I don’t want a job where my alarm goes off and I’m thinking, how can I get through this? I don’t have to worry about that now. When I can come back to the office knowing I’ve made a difference, that’s invaluable to me.
“Just to see two kids sit down and listen to Bible readings who have never heard any Scripture before, it doesn’t really get much better,” Salafia said. “What type of impact do you want more than that?”
by Robert Mitchell
A Stronger Faith
Yale University was founded in 1701 as a college to train ministers. Today, the university is a rather different and secular place. As a student there, Isaiah Salafia said the give–and–take he experienced in conversation with others about his Christianity only strengthened his faith.
“I value differences of opinion,” Salafia said. “I may not have the same opinion you have, but I’m willing to listen and try to understand where you’re coming from. Yale really wasn’t a difficulty for me in regards to questioning my own faith.
“Everyone has doubts; doubts are a part of it. It’s in the Bible repeatedly. But in regard to the expansion of my knowledge, in terms of those who have a different mindset, I think that expansion did more to bolster my faith than if I had just stayed within an echo chamber with individuals who have the same beliefs as I do.
“I think a lot of us make that ‘echo chamber’ mistake. In order to keep our faith or our ideas or our values, we never expose them to anything that can challenge them. I think my faith was improved by being challenged.”