Jodee Nelson knows what it's like to not fit in because of the colour of her skin. Now the mother of five does whatever she can to help her children feel a sense of belonging, including driving them across Winnipeg to participate in a North End basketball program called Anishinabe Pride.
"All of my kids play … and because we live in Charleswood, there is not a lot of aboriginal children [there] who play sports," Nelson said.
"So we got involved in this program [because] it felt comfortable for them, because they actually had people their own race. They fit in."
They spend every Sunday afternoon at the North Centennial Recreation and Leisure Facility. Her oldest daughter, Alice McKay, 14, volunteers to help kids age five to 12 develop their basketball skills.
"I really like helping out and I really like playing with kids," McKay said.
Her three sisters — Grace, 11, Eliza, 8, and Edee, 6 — are among the roughly 60 kids who attend the free camp. (Their little brother is still too young to play.)
Returning every year
Alice's coach, Raven Boulanger, organizes the program. The 22-year-old started the camp in 2009, after she applied for a $1,000 grant with the United Way. Boulanger also found sponsors and got her high school to donate the gym space for the 15 kids who signed up the first year.
"I think the best feeling is seeing kids return every year. They are doing things like dribbling the ball under their legs and they are only seven years old," Boulanger said.
"Just like myself, there are a lot of kids out there who can't afford to play sports at the competitive level. I saw an opportunity to do something and took it."
Boulanger said she started the camp to give back to her community, because so many people invested their time and money in her.
She is currently in her third college basketball season, playing for the Red River College Rebels on a scholarship and taking the community development/community economic development diploma program.
"I want to be a part of the process of changing policies and creating programs — anything I can do to help the youth, because they are our future," Boulanger said.
When Boulanger turned 13, she and four friends were invited to play in an elite basketball league, but none of their parents could afford the $2,000 entry fee.
That's when her parents, Jackie Anderson and Marty Boulanger, found an alternative solution — sponsors.
"It's important that we provide this opportunity for all indigenous youth to ensure every child has an opportunity to be engaged in something positive," Anderson said.
Anderson and Boulanger found funding dollars from three aboriginal organizations plus donations from the community.
"We lost every single game. We also experienced a lot of racism, not just from our opponents but from the parents in the stands as well," Boulanger said about their startup year.
"That year it really set a foundation for what this program was going to be about."
The following year, Boulanger and her parents started using indigenous culture and knowledge to help build the teens' self-esteem and to build healthy relationships moving forward.
Now there are more than 120 teenagers involved in the Anishinabe Pride program — a total of seven teams play in different elite leagues around the province.
Learning sacred seven teachings
On top of basketball games and weekly practices, players attend Sacred Seven — classroom sessions with elders and spiritual advisors, taking part in the sweat lodge and other traditional ceremonies.
"That is based on the seven sacred teachings. We are showing the kids how to be in relationships with oneself, with others, and with a community," Anderson said.
Lessons that even the younger participants at the weekend basketball program are picking up.
"Honesty, humility, courage, truth, wisdom, respect, love," eight-year-old Eliza McKay said when asked if she knew the seven teachings.
"You should know a lot about your culture whatever you are, because it's special to you and it's important."
Hearing those words come out of her daughter's mouth, Nelson's eyes begin to water and a smile spreads across her face.
"It just backs up everything that we teach our children already. The teachings we are giving them at home, and now it's incorporated into sports; it's almost easier for them to remember," Nelson said.
"I'm actually so very appreciative of what Raven does. Not only [is she] in post-secondary, she's a role model for my daughters to look up to."
Anderson and her husband still help with the finances and recruiting kids for Anishinabe Pride. Raven and her two sisters, along with other veteran players, continue to develop new programming, she said.
"As a mother I am extremely proud," Anderson said.
"We live in the North End. We work in the North End. My kids have really become a part of their community, and basketball has kept them on a really good path where education and leadership is priority."