Stars of the Mizzou Tigers, Kansas Jayhawks and even the Harlem Globetrotters have graced the courts at Hy Vee Arena — but on Saturday, it was Alena Rodriguez’s big debut.
Rodriguez, 10, was one of about 100 participants at a basketball camp organized for children with an incarcerated family member.
As Rodriguez and her family took a lunch break from playing multiple games, she leaned forward in a chair and gave a play-by-play.
“I made the second shot and then I snatched it out his hand and made it again,” she said, sitting next to her twin sister, Helena Rodriguez, 10.
The two players are considered Angel Tree kids, meaning they have a family member who is incarcerated. The Angel Tree program is a branch of the Prison Fellowship organization. Local churches like United Believers Community Church partner with Prison Fellowship to deliver gifts in the name of a child’s incarcerated family member. They also host community events to connect children and set up families with resources like mental health counseling or food pantries.
“This event is really meant to spark relationships,” said Karen Lopez, a director of Prison Fellowship’s sport camps.
“Whenever a family goes through a crisis, all of a sudden a mother finds herself as a single mom. There’s always practical ways where we can assist people through this time. We have moms here, grandparents, and even a few dads who are raising kids on their own,” she said.
Betty Lennox, a former WNBA player and current educator, helped volunteer coaches keep track of their players on Saturday.
“We all have something in common, we all have someone who’s incarcerated. Angel Tree is trying to fill that void,” Lennox said.
Lennox created different stations on the court, helping kids learn how to dribble, play defense and communicate with teammates.
Around 1,400 Kansas City kids are registered with the program. Across the country there are about 300,000 youths, according to Schuler Shanen, national director of the Angel Tree program.
Tamika Barrett brought her daughter and some of her students from Brookside Charter School to the event, hoping it would give them a chance to meet new people.
Now 38-years-old, Barrett was an Angel Tree kid. Her father was incarcerated when she was 3-years-old. He is still serving out his sentence.
“You see the joy on all their faces with the basketball ... It’s just all about love,” she said.
Sarah Armendariz, mother of Alena and Helena Rodriguez, said the program means a lot.
“I’m actually an ex-felon, and you know, knowing that there’s an agency that’s willing to give to the children and provide to the children while their parents are incarcerated, that’s awesome,” she said. “Their uncle is currently incarcerated, he’s the one who put them on the list, and he’s like a father figure to them.”
She turned away for a moment, her eyes glassy.
“These emotions, I’m happy. I’m grateful. And I feel like they’re blessed to have this opportunity.”