The first ever basketball camp put on by Native Connections, a project of United Indian Health Services, was a hit.

The Native Connections Summer Basketball and Wellness Camp came to Del Norte High School on Thursday and saw a big turnout of 70 campers ages 6 to 18 years old — many but not all of the campers were Native kids. Native Connections project manager Cara Owings said she wasn’t sure exactly what to expect after a similar event in Humboldt County, which organizers expected to be larger than the Del Norte camp, drew about 40 participants.

With 35 kids signed up just six days before the event, Ownings said she was pleasantly surprised to see a group of 70 at Del Norte High School on Thursday.

“I think that it just speaks to the need in the community,” Owings said. “We offered a resource and the community showed up to take it — that is the whole goal of the project really.”

Thursday’s camp was Native Connections first real foray into the world of athletics, so UIHS partnered with Warrior Institute, a grassroots project with the 7th Generation Fund, to develop a program that fit with the organization’s goals.

The resulting curriculum focused on far more than just hoops.

“We are doing a lot of skill development like shooting and mixing in some fun games,” said Warrior Institute founder and director Joseph Marshall. “We are incorporating spirituality and culture into it, like this morning we had Lauren Bommelyn do a welcoming prayer and talked about ceremony and creation. We also talked about nutrition and we have other cultural activities too. We are trying to have a different type of basketball camp where it is not just basketball — it is wellness. We want to approach it from different angles.”

Owings said the idea to put on a basketball camp started to form after Native Connections first wellness camp last summer.

“Last year we did a music and poetry workshop and we collected data from the youth,” Owings said. “We asked them what type of activities they wanted for next summer and recreation sports, basketball specifically, was the number one thing on the list. So as the Native Connections program we made our activities reflect what the kids wanted.”

Both Owings and Marshall said basketball seems to be one of the most popular sports on many reservations.

“Native kids love basketball. You only need a hoop and a ball, and you can play,” Owings said. “Something that we realized was a lot of our kids don’t have access to the leagues that you have to pay for, or to basketball camps. But we know that our kids are just as talented, and they have the heart for it. So we wanted to give them some time to work with these athletes to really hone their skills and feed their passion for basketball.”

There to teach the kids about some of the finer points of basketball were a team of mentors, many of whom played basketball in high school and college. But the mentors were there to help the kids with more than hoops.

“We are using local mentors, which is great because the youth are developing relationships with mentors that are already in the community,” Owings said. “So in the future if they start having issues with depression or substance abuse they can remember that role model and reach out or remember the things that they said.”

In addition to basketball drills, campers were treated to a nutrition workshop to learn about how to properly nourish their bodies, along with receiving information about mental health and substance abuse prevention. In the afternoon, the kids sat down to listen to keynote speaker Damen Bell-Holter.

The 6-foot-9, 245 pound power forward started playing basketball in an area even more remote than anywhere in Del Norte County, but used the sport to better his life. Bell-Holter went on to play four years of Division I college basketball at Oral Roberts University before going to training camp with the Boston Celtics in 2013, playing a year in the NBA D-League, and heading overseas to play professionally in Turkey, Finland and Italy. Bell-Holter retired from professional basketball last August to focus on connecting with kids at camps similar to this one throughout the U.S and Canada.

“I used basketball to get me all around the world and reach my dreams and now I have a really special opportunity to speak into their lives, and to try to get them to understand the bigger picture of using basketball — not letting basketball use you,” Bell-Holter said.

Bell-Holter is a Native Alaskan — a member of the Haida Nation — and grew up in Hydaburg, Alaska — a town of about 300 people.

“Literally the only way to get there was a boat or a plane,” Bell-Holter said. “If I didn’t have basketball, who knows what would have happened for me? I grew up in a town of 300 people and where I am from my graduating class if I had stayed home was 10 people. Of the people I went to school with, a couple of them are dead and a lot of them are on drugs. It is kind of the decisions that these kids have to make in these small communities weather they are Native American or not. You have to make decisions because there is such a small amount of friends to choose from.”

Although Bell-Holter spoke with the kids about how he was able to achieve his dreams in the sport of basketball, his overall message was more broad.

“My message is not necessarily focused on basketball, it is just focused on getting kids to set goals and build a foundation of respect, accountability, hard work and sacrifice,” Bell-Holter said. “That is where they will take that next step into whatever they want to be. My focus isn’t basketball, it’s about getting the kids to set goals and to not care what anybody else thinks about those goals.”

In order to achieve those goals, whatever they are, Bell-Holter told the campers that everything starts with respect. From there accountability follows, leading to hard work and sacrifice.

“By respecting themselves they hold themselves accountable and surround themselves with the right people,” Bell-Holter said. “My number one thing is to get them to understand that you have to surround yourselves with the right people. You can’t hang out with negative people and live a positive life — it is as simple as that. That can go for a kid or for a 40 year old adult. If you don’t surround yourself with the right people you have no chance of being successful.”

For Bell-Holter, focusing on basketball was a way to avoid many of the bad influences that have since taken hold of many of his childhood friends.

It also provided him with an opportunity to get out of Alaska where he surrounded himself with some of the best young basketball players and coaches around.

“I was fortunate enough to get out and start playing nationally when I was 15 years old with a team called Friends of Hoops,” Bell-Holter said. “I was extremely blessed to be able to play alongside future NBA guys like Isaiah Thomas, Spencer Hawes, and Martell Webster. What that did was it gave me exposure — I was being watched when I was 15 by the top programs around the country. It got my name out there and as time went on I ultimately had a bunch of offers and chose to play at Oral Roberts in Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

Although not all of the kids at the Native Connections Summer Basketball and Wellness Camp will go on to make a living playing basketball, organizers hope that campers can use the lessons learned to help identify and achieve their dreams.

“It is really cool for me because I went to this high school, and quite a few of us working here today went here to,” Owings said. “So to be able to come back and to give back to the next generation, and to give them more than what we had growing up here is really the goal.”

Owings said she also hopes that the kids came away with the knowledge that they are not alone, and they have a whole community to support them.

Anyone suffering from depression can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or contact the crisis text line by texting “home” to 741-741. United Indian Health Services also provides several wellness-based opportunities and programs.

“We not only offer behavioral health counseling and substance abuse counseling, we also have a traditional healer that comes in and at our Arcata location we offer traditional sweats and we have different substance abuse prevention groups at our clinic as well that people can use as a resource,” Owings said.

Reach Michael Zogg at mzogg@triplicate.com .

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