The Davie Ranch is less than an hour's drive from the homeless shelter in Miami, but it feels like a different planet for the kids enrolled in the James Jones Crew22 Training Camp.
Many of these boys and girls have never seen a horse up close, let alone ride one. Horseback riding just isn't on the radar of things to do for homeless kids who are more concerned with getting three meals a day and having clothes to wear, so a field trip to the ranch was an incredible experience for them.
"It's like you're being picked up on something that's high, and like you're flying, but it's actually like a dream come true, kind of, if you never rode a horse before," said 7th-grader Precius Palmer, trying to describe the experience.
Jones is a Miami native who went on to play basketball for the University of Miami and now, for the Miami Heat. The sharpshooting guard won the NBA's Three-Point Contest in 2011, and has now won consecutive championships with the team. Jones is a winner, but his greatest triumph may be off the court, with the work he's doing with homeless children.
"We wanted to take them out of their element, kind of wrap our arms around them, and show them that the world is bigger than they've ever dreamed," said Jones.
Some players run their own basketball camps, and make token appearances. Jones is at his two-week camp every day, and it's far from a traditional sports camp. The emphasis in the Crew22 Training Camp is on teaching life skills, on preparing these middle-school-age kids for the coming school year, on motivating them to succeed in general.
Horseback riding fits into that philosophy because, Jones says, it widens their horizons and allows them to consider possibilities they may not have ever pondered before.
"Their facial expressions, it speaks volumes to just how excited they are and how much they cherish these opportunities," Jones said at the ranch Thursday, watching his campers enjoy the experience.
Horseback riding is also therapeutic. It instills confidence in kids. In some cases, climbing onto the back of such a large animal allows them to conquer a fear. One volunteer counselor tells a story of one girl who did just that.
"She said I'm not getting on horses, I have a phobia of horses, I'm not getting on, then she was the first to get on, she loved it!" said counselor Taryn Armstrong-Jackson. "My kids, you would not know that they're homeless, they have great attitudes, they're positive, they're friendly."
Jones hopes the campers see him as an example of someone who worked hard and succeeded, someone they literally look up to. Reality also is never far away. Camp is an escape from their lives in the homeless shelter. Are they jealous of kids who live in traditional homes, with parents who can afford to buy them whatever they need?
"No," answered camper Eddie Aponte, who's going into 9th grade, "because I used to have my normal house, I don't get mad about other kids, I'm actually happy about the other kids that they're not in my situation."
The goal of the Crew22 Training Camp is to, in effect, feed the campers enough motivation during the camp session to last them for life.
It gives "horsepower" a whole new meaning.
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