Prison Fellowship, a Christian nonprofit working with children and families affected by incarceration, is launching the Opportunity Kids Collaborative with Walmart Saturday at The Star in Frisco.
The nonprofit will take a community-based approach to helping children in the Dallas area. Walmart’s Center for Racial Equity granted Prison Fellowship $450,000 to jumpstart the program, which will provide support networks to children in low-income communities of color across the country.
James Ackerman, Prison Fellowship’s president and CEO, said the nonprofit identified five cities to begin with: Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Atlanta and San Bernardino, Calif. Saturday’s event marks the beginning of the collaborative in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area.
The Opportunity Kids Collaborative will partner with local organizations to provide mentorship, and spiritual, health and wellness opportunities for children, with a focus on mental health, as well as family strengthening, education and economic growth services.
Prison Fellowship is the largest outreach organization in the country for the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and their families. For 45 years, the organization has advocated for criminal justice reform on the state and federal levels and used Christian-focused efforts to restore communities.
One Prison Fellowship initiative is the Angel Tree Program, which serves children whose parents are incarcerated. The program runs Angel Tree Christmas, Angel Tree Camping and Angel Tree Sports Camps.
Prison Fellowship has hosted Angel Tree Sports Camps since 2005 nationwide and expanded into several sports, including soccer, baseball, ice skating and basketball. This is the second year the Angel Tree Sports camp is returning to the Dallas area, alongside the launch of the Opportunity Kids Collaborative.
“The vision behind it is to get a whole group of nonprofits, churches, other religious institutions, non-religious institutions, schools [and] governments to work together to create opportunity for a whole generation of children,” Ackerman said, “so that we see children coming out of the inner city and becoming the leaders of tomorrow.”
Ackerman said the phrase Opportunity Kids was created when he and another Prison Fellowship executive agreed the term “at risk youth” was too negative of a phrase to describe children lacking resources in impoverished communities.
“What we realized is there’s no one organization or no one government or no one corporation that can change the lives of a whole generation of children,” Ackerman said. “But if we all work together, we can.”
Prior to the collaborative kickoff, Prison Fellowship will host an Angel Tree Sports Camp at The Star with more than 150 children attending. All of the children will receive a free “swag bag,” and a pair of Nike football cleats. They will have the opportunity to work with former collegiate and NFL athletes, who will coach the camp. John Fassel, the Dallas Cowboys special teams coordinator, is a featured speaker.
“It’s really a day of encouragement for these children,” said Karen Lopez, director of church partnerships and Angel Tree Sports Camp. “We want to get them intentionally plugged into a healthy community.”
Lopez said the day camp is also used to connect with the children’s caregivers, who are invited to sit on the sidelines and attend a breakout session to learn about available resources.
“We have a lot of nonprofit partners, our church partners, step up to the plate and just make them aware of resources that are available to them,” Lopez said. “Everything from mentoring to food services, anything that will support their family during this stage in their lives.”
Sammy Perez, director of grassroots at Prison Fellowship, said he believes that if he had access to the positive people and opportunities such as the Angel Tree Program during his youth he would have gone down a different path.
Perez has only seen his father twice in his life, and he was removed from the care of his mother when he was 2. He grew up in group homes, youth institutions and went to youth prison twice.
“That experience was just void of healthy social relationships, healthy friends, healthy mentors,” Perez said. “Looking back on that time now, I can definitely say that was very instrumental in me kind of going down the wrong path.”
After about 10 years of serving in the youth and adult prison system in Virginia, Perez began volunteering with Prison Fellowship.
“It’s truly been an amazing experience coming from my background where oftentimes my criminal record was … a barrier,” he said. “To be accepted into Prison Fellowship where my background was actually viewed as an asset was really just a life giving thing.”
Last month in Maryland, Perez had the opportunity to volunteer at an Angel Tree Sports Camps with his 16-year-old son Alijah. Perez first met his son through a glass screen while he was serving jail time — his son was a baby.
“To come full circle and to now have an opportunity to go to an Angel Tree Sports Camp and to give back to the same kids who were very similar to [Alijah],” Perez said, “it’s just really special to be a part of.”
Lopez said the Prison Fellowship Angel Tree Program currently ministers and cares for 6,000 children in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area.
“There’s usually a lot of stigma and shame surrounding having an incarcerated loved one,” Lopez said. “So when they get to actually be in community with other children that are going through what they are, it makes them feel a little bit less alone.”