It all started last fall during a WE Day event that Jalen Ponto attended with his mother Andrea.
WE Day is an event meant to empower and motivate youth to take action on local and global issues. WE Day events feature speeches and performances by global leaders, social activists and public figures.
“We walked away from the event, and Jalen was inspired to do something great,” Andrea Ponto said. “As his mom, I wanted him to find something he was passionate about and try and do a great thing that was important to him personally.”
After some family discussions, the Pontos decided that Jalen, a seventh-grader at Century Junior High in Forest Lake, would try to do a good deed that had something to do with sports. He is a basketball player and he wondered aloud one day what could be done to help kids with special needs get an opportunity to enjoy playing as much as he does.
“We had a really good conversation about the challenges that wheelchair-bound kids face,” Ponto said. “I began looking into raising money for adapted sports programs for youth.”
The search led her to Camp Courage in Golden Valley.
“In December of last year, we went and watched some of the special needs athletes play basketball at Camp Courage,” Ponto said. “We met some of the organizers and athletes and learned that the camp was connected to the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute that had a location in Forest Lake, where we were from.”
In conversation with the camp organizers, Andrea and Jalen Ponto learned that there was a need for sport wheelchairs for the younger kids. Purchasing an everyday wheelchair was expensive enough for most families, and a sport wheelchair was just something most couldn’t afford. The camp wanted to be able to provide enough sport chairs for kids to use when they visited.
“Jalen knew that he wanted to raise funds to buy and donate at least one sports wheelchair for kids to use at the camp,” Ponto said. “We just needed to brainstorm how to raise the funds.”
The first idea Jalen had was to rally his team to get pledges for a free throw contest. People would pledge a dollar amount for each free throw made over a certain period of time. That plan hit a snag as the cost of renting a school gym for the day would have cut too deeply into projected profits.
“In the past, we had held a garage sale to raise money for Relay for Life and so we thought maybe we could do the same thing again,” Ponto said. “It worked fabulously as more than 20 families brought us items to sell.”
Jalen had a goal of raising $1,600 to be able to buy one chair, but by the end of day one of the sale, he had made enough to purchase a chair and a half.
“We made just under $5,000 total, and Courage Kenny was able to purchase a total three chairs,” Ponto said. “We had kids at the sale giving us $20 bills out of their own savings. The giving was incredible.”
Jalen was recognized during the Courage Kenny Classic sports tournament the weekend of Nov. 5 and 6. There, he was able to meet some athletes who had just returned from the Special Olympics in Rio.
“We were able to meet athletes from all over the U.S. and to see Jalen get so much praise for what he was able to accomplish was a really special thing,” Ponto said. “To know that more kids were going to be able to enjoy sports like he does really made him feel good about what he’d done.”
Jalen felt so good that he not only plans to continue to volunteer with Camp Courage, he is already planning his next good deed.
“We got home and the conversation was about what can we do next,” Ponto said. “I encouraged Jalen to think about something else that he has a passion for. He loves to read, and so we are exploring something to do based around literacy. It is very encouraging to me to know that Jalen has such a big heart and really wants to help people.”