Summers in California are hot, sticky, and long. They're especially long for kids who are missing parents from the home.
Kenny Clark was one of those kids. Today he's a defensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers, and now that he's grown, Kenny is partnering with Angel Tree® to bring some life to these kids' summer.
Every year, thousands of children see one of their parents leave to serve time behind bars. When one parent isn't home, everything gets harder for families. That's why Angel Tree, a program of Prison Fellowship®, exists to serve prisoners' families and help restore the bonds that were broken by incarceration. Angel Tree starts with a gift at Christmas and shares the Gospel with prisoners' children all year, through uplifting events like summer camps and sports clinics.
THE JOY OF ANGEL TREE
Kenny received a gift from his father through Angel Tree as a child. When he got a chance to volunteer at an Angel Tree Sports Clinic in July, he couldn't wait to help spread the same joy he experienced as a kid.
"My dad went to prison when I was 9, so going through that at a young age, a lot of weight was put on my shoulders," Kenny explained at the sports clinic in Rialto, California. Kenny's dad didn't want his absence to impact Christmas for his son. So he signed up Kenny and his other kids for Angel Tree back in 2005.
"It was real cool," Kenny says about the gifts Angel Tree brought to him and his siblings. "I didn't realize when I was younger, but as I got older and saw how my dad was sending us presents, how he was giving us this and giving us that, for Angel Tree to be helping us out as a family—I thought that was pretty cool."
Kenny’s mom, Nicole, loves Christmas, and the program was special to her too. She didn't know about Angel Tree until kind volunteers showed up with presents.
"I had no idea what Angel Tree was, but we were contacted by some volunteers and I just cried," she remembers. "Yes, my children still had a Christmas, but I was going through some things. Then you guys came in and you just brought all kinds of things. ... I was excited."
"I had no idea what Angel Tree was,
but we were contacted by some volunteers
and I just cried."
WORK HARD, PLAY HARD
On Sunday, July 1, about 260 kids streamed onto the Wilmer Amina High School campus in Rialto. The sun peaked early, washing the football field in heat and light. Adults savored the occasional breeze while kids basked in the excitement of working out with Kenny and his NFL friends.
Events started early—just like the pros—with check-in at 8 a.m. and the first drills starting at 9. Everyone got the training camp experience rotating stations between defensive and offensive drills before putting it all together for a 7-on-7 tournament.
Kenny and his friends wanted to make sure everyone had a good time, but they had to work too.
"For these kids today, we just want to show them hard work," Kenny said. "After this camp I just hope the kids have a desire to work hard."
Kenny had to work hard at the uphill battle he faced as an older brother. With his dad behind bars, Kenny was the one his brothers and sisters looked up to. Thankfully, he had his own role model still at home.
"I was devastated. I was scared. I didn't know what to do," Kenny’s mom, Nicole, said about that day 14 years ago when her husband went to prison. "I just kept my kids in church every week. And sports. And it worked. ... From church, sports, and going to see their dad, it worked for us. And a lot of prayer."
Faith was important in those early days, and it still keeps the Clark family bound together. The day started off with Kenny and family praying. Kenny sets an example in everything he does.
"At my camp we put God first in everything," Kenny said. "Everything that we do in front of the kids, we do for a reason … them watching me pray before I do this event or watching us do the drill, watching how hard my mom is working. Even the parents, they can take something from this."
"At my camp we put God first in everything."
FROM THE BEGINNING
In 2005 the Clarks celebrated that first Christmas with Angel Tree. For the next 10 years, Angel Tree continued to serve them until Kenny's dad said it was time for them to help someone else receive those same blessings. That's when Kenny's family decided to do an Angel Tree Sports Clinic.
Angel Tree invigorated Kenny and his family to be a light in their community.
The sports clinic has allowed Kenny to return to his roots. He graduated from Wilmer Amina High School where he met his girlfriend Kaleeyah, who also attended this year's clinic in Rialto. "Ever since I've met them, they've been like a family that everybody loves," Kaleeyah said about the Clarks. She started going over to their home after she met Kenny, and the family—especially Nicole—inspired her greatly.
"Ever since I met her, she really showed me how to be strong," Kaleeyah said, pointing to Nicole as the family stood in the shade. "She really helped me with my strength. I used to be a person who would break down through anything."
"I'm really glad to have Angel Tree partner with us.
They're near and dear to my heart.
I'm just thankful to have a relationship with them."
THE GIFT OF HOPE
Nicole set the example for Kenny, and now he's doing the same for other kids who have an incarcerated parent. He's thankful to have a platform for bringing hope to hurting kids.
"I'm like one of the hometown heroes of my city, so just being able for them to see me on TV and in person, it's going to be cool," Kenny said about the clinic.
"When my dad left it was definitely a hard time—a struggle for me and my family," he shares. "But Angel Tree definitely helped that process out. He's still gone … but Angel Tree definitely helped out with [softening] the blow."
Every year Angel Tree helps deliver hope to thousands of kids just like Kenny. In 2017, nearly 300,000 children across the United States received an Angel Tree gift on behalf of their incarcerated parent. And many of those children will receive year-round support because of caring volunteers and mentors.
"I'm really glad to have Angel Tree partner with us," Kenny said. "They're near and dear to my heart. I'm just thankful to have a relationship with them."
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