MESA – A child with an incarcerated parent is about three times more likely to get in trouble with the law than other children, according to a study conducted by Central Connecticut State University, In the United States, 8% of children have had a incarcerated parent. In Arizona, that number is even higher at around 11%.
These numbers explain why the Central Christian Church of Arizona recently hosted the Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree Sports Camp. Exclusive to children whose parents are incarcerated, the camp offered a day filled with activities and guidance for less fortunate youth in the Arizona community.
“We want to break this cycle of incarceration,” said Karen Lopez, director of Church Partnerships & Angel Tree Sports Camps, which organized the Mesa camp. “We are trying to get that point home. Just because a parent, loved one, or someone you know made questionable choices doesn’t mean you should too.
The camp benefited more than 150 Arizona children ages 7-17. Each camper received a basketball, a Bible and a pair of sneakers – with a wide variety of sizes and styles to choose from.
“I met a lot of people and learned a lot,” said Joshua, a 14-year-old camper. “I wish I could do this all the time. It was cool.”
Although the organizers were delighted to see the children having fun, the day was more than a game of basketball and hanging out with friends.
“It’s not just a day of fun,” Lopez said. “It’s about having long-term impacts on these children and their families. One of our main goals is to show (to children) that their own choices can shape the direction of their lives.
Among those working at the event was Central Christian’s Mesa campus pastor, Perry Emerick.
He brought the campers together and gave an inspirational talk about decision making and life choices before ending with a prayer and sending the campers off to various basketball drills.
“I think it’s a big surprise to many, how many children whose parents are incarcerated there are here in our community,” Emerick said. “This camp was a great way to be present in their lives, helping them and blessing them in any way possible.”
The event included an appearance from Kenny Dobbs, billed as “The World’s Best Slam Dunk Artist”, and someone who narrowly avoided his own prison sentence as a young man.
Dobbs taught the campers some basketball fundamentals and then held a dipping exhibition.
However, while Dobbs may specialize in dunking basketballs, he acknowledges that’s not the true meaning of camp.
“The goal of today’s mission is to use basketball as a vehicle to be able to impact the lives of these kids,” Dobbs said. “As they say, it takes a village to raise children. We’re here today as a village, a community, impacting these kids, man. That’s the whole story.”
About 70% of children in America are raised in two-parent households, so many of them don’t need a village. But children of incarcerated parents often do.
The Prison Fellowship was founded in 1976 by a well-known figure in the history of American politics, Charles Colson, who was special adviser to former President Richard Nixon. Colson was sentenced to federal prison for obstruction of justice during the Watergate scandal.
After his release, Colson decided to dedicate his life to creating a more restorative approach to the criminal justice system.
The Colson Fellowship seeks to transform the lives of prisoners, care for their families, and champion a justice system that helps individuals change their ways. The program is funded almost exclusively by charitable donations, with contributions exceeding $60 million in the past calendar year, according to Prison Fellowship.
In addition to organizing camps for children, members of the organization visit prisons across the country to assess who they could help and how. As they urge prisoners to enroll their children in Angel Tree sports camps, the fraternity is also giving prisoners’ families Christmas gifts.
Rather than placing the organization’s address on the gifts, the community addresses the incarcerated parent’s gifts, reminding children that their mother or father is still a part of their lives. It’s a subtle but important detail.
“We try to touch the lives of these children throughout the year, but it all starts at Christmas. It’s one of my favorite things we do here,” Lopez said.
David Prian of Central Christian Church has benefited from this wholesome method of support and has a special relationship with Prison Fellowship.
Prior to becoming a member of the church, joining their marketing team, and volunteering with ACTS homeless ministry, Prian was arrested for trafficking in stolen vehicles.
Shortly after his conviction, his first son was born. The fraternity visited Prian at the Florence prison, discussing how their program could benefit him and his family.
“When you’re locked down, holidays are always the hardest,” Prian said. “At Christmas, thanks to this incredible organization, my son was able to receive presents from his father. It allowed me to be part of Christmas with my family, which meant a lot to us.
One of Prian’s biggest challenges while incarcerated was being away from his wife and son. He felt like he was left behind.
Once he got in touch with the brotherhood, everything started to change.
“I felt like I was always valued — like I mattered,” Prian said. “It showed me that there were people who not only cared about me, but also cared about my family.”
Since his release in 2011, Prian has changed his life. He graduated from DeVry University at the top of his class on his reintegration into society, finishing with a 4.0 GPA and receiving summa cum laude honors. He now owns and runs a digital marketing agency and owns several cars and trucks.
On Saturday, Prian helped lead Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree sports camp at his church, lending a helping hand to the organization that helped turn his life around all those years ago. He was grateful to be in a position where he could help guide children and parents through situations similar to his in the past.