With five Super Bowl championships under their belt, the Dallas Cowboys are considered one of the NFL’s greatest teams. But the franchise’s wins don’t end on the field.
Welcoming 181 boys and girls whose mom or dad is incarcerated, the team created a special day for each child to play football with outstanding professional athletes and, even more importantly, to receive hope and inspiration.
MORE THAN FOOTBALL
Angel Tree sports camps use athletics as a medium to engage children and adolescents with a day of fun where they can improve their skills and gain confidence. But the experience goes way beyond that.
In June this year, the Dallas Cowboys opened The Star’s doors for Angel Tree sports camp attendees. Each child received gifts from the Cowboys organization including a football, a pair of Nike sneakers, and more.
Even more valuable, however, were the words of encouragement and the hope of the Gospel poured into each child by team players, coaches, Prison Fellowship staff, and volunteers from local churches.
Karen Lopez, senior director of church partnerships and sports camps at Prison Fellowship, highlighted the church’s role at this event and the crucial part it plays in ministering to families with incarcerated loved ones.
“These are all churches who, at Christmas, have served these children and families and are now serving them again at this sports camp,” Lopez said. “They are using this opportunity to continue to build relationship with their families. I want to encourage churches to continue to think of ways they can minister to Angel Tree families. We have some churches that host their own sports camps, invite families to Easter events, backpack drives, tutoring, and more. This is not about a one-time event, this is about relationship.”
THE GAME PLAN
The impact of incarceration on a family is felt by people of all ages and backgrounds. It affects each member of the family uniquely. For an organization with the size and impact of the Dallas Cowboys to come alongside children with an incarcerated parent reflects the team’s generosity and compassion for the community surrounding it.
“The mission has always been to bring a group of wonderful kids in here and tell them that we love them,” says Coach John Fassel, the Cowboys’ special teams coordinator. “Let them play a little football, teach them about God and the hope that they have, and we let them be around some of our Dallas Cowboys football players to see that someday, whatever they want to be, they could be that.”
The day is an opportunity for the children to be in an environment of encouragement and of much-needed examples of lives surrendered to God.
In attendance was Cowboys’ cornerback Nahshon Wright, who emphasizes the importance of positive mentoring relationships in the lives of the children who attended.
“I didn’t always have both parents coming up,” Wright said. “In order to get to where I’ve gotten in life, it took a surrounding cast. It took other people. So just knowing I had other people supporting me, having my back, and pushing me along the way, it just helped me grow as a person. I lost my dad to violence. Not having him here did affect me. I’m here to let these kids know that there is a way, that their situation doesn’t define who they are. If I could make just one of these kids believe in themselves, it means a lot to me.”
A WINNING DAY
Attendees on The Star’s impressive grounds got a behind-the-scenes peek at the Cowboys’ practice field skills, maneuvers, and plays. The sports camp was a winning day, but as Fassel pointed out, the time spent with each child doesn’t end when everyone has gone home.
“The influence that the coaches here and the players here have on these kids is immeasurable,” he says. “The opportunities that we give these kids to be a part of something this special, I believe is lifelong. And they’re at the age now where they’ll remember these opportunities and these players that they look up to.”
Gateway Church pastor Stephen Wilson was in attendance as well, noting the event showcased how Angel Tree’s impact on the families and children of incarcerated parents goes beyond Christmas.
“For the longest time, we thought Christmas was the only time we could partner with Angel Tree,” he says. “But today, we got to experience a sports camp, and to see hundreds of kids here on the field at the Dallas Cowboys facility was just an amazing thing. Seeing them connect with the players and the coaches, just seeing the smiles and the joy in their hearts to be a part of this camp was just unbelievable. It’s just an honor to partner with Prison Fellowship at this event.”
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