At a young age, Arden Pala started volunteering with his family, and he immediately was hooked. Now, at the age of 14 years old, he is the founder of his very own volunteer program in San Diego called Sports4Kids. Fueled by his own passion for basketball and wanting to support students who are unhoused, Sports4Kids provides sports clinics for schools in areas where income levels are below the poverty threshold. Additionally, twice a year, the organization puts together care packages full of hygiene products, toys and sports equipment. Arden is very excited when he can give kids their own basketball so they also can play in their free time. Currently, the Sports4Kids serves three schools – approximately 450 students each year – but Arden is working on expanding to many more.
Arden is enthusiastic about spreading awareness of the unhoused population in San Diego. Not only does he spend time with the students participating in Sports4Kids, but he also created a documentary, “A Second Chance,” that shows the challenges of people who are currently living without housing. He interviewed six people who are unhoused, and two experts on the subject. The documentary received numerous awards and recognition.
What inspires you to volunteer?
This one instance really sticks out to me. A few years ago, I read books to students at César Chavez Elementary School, where there is about a 90 percent rate of unhoused students. Then a week later, I found 80 little notes in my mailbox – every kid wrote a note for me. It was so sweet. And I think that really drives me to do more volunteering because I saw how much it really affects people. Even by doing a task so small that other people might take for granted. It just warmed my heart to see those little notes come in the mail, and it really changed my perspective about volunteering.
Why did you start Sports4Kids?
After I read the books to the students at César Chavez Elementary School, the principal was walking me out and he said the school had to lay off their athletics teacher, and they had no other coaches available. The kids weren’t getting any P.E. time or any athletics at all. So, I stepped in as the athletics coach. I only came once a week, but I thought maybe it would help the kids at least a little bit. Later, I realized how big of an affect one hour a week of sports had on these kids – it even improved their grades believe it or not. I realized how big of an affect fitness had on a growing child’s mind. So, I decided to spread Sports4Kids to more and more schools.
Describe your volunteer role with Sports4Kids.
Now that the organization has been able to hire private coaches for the schools, right now my main focus is to apply for more grants and more partnerships. I’m an assistant coach at two of the schools, and I also do presentations at other schools about our organization. During these presentations, I talk about common stereotypes about unhoused people, and how most of the stereotypes are wrong. I just want to spread awareness about the people without housing in San Diego because at the end of the day one of my biggest concerns is about how little people know about how large the unhoused population is in the city.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
Whenever I finish a volunteering task, even if it’s picking up trash on the side of the road, I always have a good feeling in my heart. I feel like you don’t get that feeling from any other activity. Another rewarding part of volunteering is the friends I make. Especially when I was first starting Sports4Kids, I made friends with the students I coached, and I made so many fun memories of the kids and I playing basketball. I even have some of kids’ phone numbers and we text from time to time. It’s so much fun, and we’re all really good friends now.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I learned volunteering is not as hard as people think, and a task that someone might think is not a lot of help can actually make a big impact on people. For example, the book reading I did early on took maybe an hour and a half out of my day, but my mom, the student’s teacher, later told me that so many kids loved me doing the book reading, and that many of them were inspired by it.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
Yes! We just made a partnership with Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation. They’re giving us $5,000 to spend on private coaches, snacks and sports gear for the kids. Also, they might donate some Puma soccer balls. Then, more long term, we really want to open our clinic in more schools because I never realized how big of an affect sport has on kids. I think there is about 20 different schools whose communities’ income levels are below the poverty threshold in San Diego, and we’re only working with three right now. I keep on imagining how big of an affect we could have if we worked with all 20 schools. And that’s our main goal is just bringing Sports4Kids to more schools and creating more partnerships so we can help more kids.
Why is it important for others to get involved in causes they care about?
I think about the Gandhi quote, “be the change you want to see in the world.” If you want something to change, instead of hoping for someone else to do it, why don’t you step in and help that cause? I thought of that quote when the principal at César Chavez Elementary School told me about the students not having an athletic program and I wanted the kids to have a sport to play. I remember falling in love with basketball, and I wanted the kids to have that same feeling and that same opportunity with other sports. So instead of waiting for someone else or another P.E. coach to come in maybe a few months, I stepped in, and I coached the kids.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
What I want people to learn from my story is that no matter what age you are, you can make a change if you just pour your heart into it. I started volunteering when I was about four years old, and my parents took me to a dinner serving at Interfaith Community Services where I served food to the unhoused people at the shelter. I still have those good memories that I made volunteering at a young age, and that’s the reason why I’m still volunteering today. So, I want people to know, no matter what age you are, you can make a difference. It’s never too early and it’s never too late. Just pour your heart into it and really believe in the problem that you want to solve.