EAST PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — An East Peoria church is giving back to the community in more ways than one this holiday season.

St. Peter’s Lutheran Church is putting together a faith-based basketball league called Upwards Basketball and hosting a holiday clothing drive for East Peoria students. Upwards Basketball is part of Upwards Sports, a non-profit with the mission of “promoting the discovery of Jesus through sports.”

“It’s just so important. Our church is here for a reason, and if we can’t pour back into the community, then what are we here for?” said Monica Pape, pastor’s wife and Upward Sports commissioner.

Monica said she got the idea from her nephew, who has an Upwards Basketball league at his church in Fairbury.

“Their theme is to play with purpose. So they don’t focus on just the sports, they focus on the whole individual, athletically, spiritually, socially and mentally, so it’s a well-rounded program that looks through the lens a little different than just basketball,” she said.

St. Peter’s has its own basketball court complete with concession stands. All proceeds earned from concessions during games are donated to local schools. Monica said they hope to enroll 120 students from kindergarten through second grade.

“This is a full-fledged basketball program. They’re going to get a jersey, and there will be coaches and referees… encouraging them that it’s okay to make mistakes, and to support them when they lose, support them when they win, and just play and have fun,” she said.

Pastor Brian Pape, a former basketball coach, said socialization has been missing in the aftermath of COVID-19, and basketball is the perfect outlet.

“Something like basketball not only develops their abilities and their technique, their athletic prowess, but also forces them to engage with other children at the same time… What this is going to do is help them become more socially networked, and I don’t mean computer social or phone social. They will interact with kids, and they won’t be afraid to be who they are with other people, and I think that’s really important,” he said.

Monica said the basketball league will practice on Monday afternoons and play games on Saturday mornings. Curley “Boo” Johnson, a retired Harlem Globetrotters basketball player from Peoria, will attend one of the games as well.

The church is also hosting a Christmas Clothing Drive to collect sweatpants, athletic shoes and coats for East Peoria students.

Brian said donations to the schools dried up post-COVID, so they want to fill that void.

“They haven’t been receiving the care they were given before. Coats, hats and contributions just dropped off, and they were so excited that we would be considering that part of this ministry to be able to give back to the school. Before those kids take off for their winter break, they’re going to get coats, and they’re going to get shoes and sweats,” he said.

It costs $65 to join the basketball league, but Monica said $45 church scholarships are available. They are also seeking coaches and referees, who will be screened through a background check.