Guest opinion: Boosted by Glenwood, Game On helps Indian Dalits |

Guest opinion: Boosted by Glenwood, Game On helps Indian Dalits

Cassandra Irving

India is a land of vibrant colors and incredible food. Its cities are teeming with new commerce and its thriving democracy and executive institutions are quickly positioning the nation to become a true global game changer. However, India has one fatal flaw that, if not addressed, could stop its progress in its tracks: For the last 3,500 years, India has been, like America once was, built on the back of slaves.

“As an Indian, I am very proud of the progress that we have made in the last 60 years,” stated Dr. Joseph D’Souza in his testimony before the Subcommittee on International Human Rights. “However, we do have a huge social disease. It is called the caste system. Coming out of the caste system we have a group of people — formerly known as the untouchables, today known as the Dalits — who have been called human history’s longeststanding slaves.”

In an effort to help India’s millions of “untouchables,” D’Souza founded the Dalit Freedom Network (DFN) and has spent the last several decades advocating for their rights and building empowerment centers for women, and English-speaking schools for Dalit children. Now well established and successful, the women’s centers and Good Shepherd schools are equipping Dalits to succeed.

The DNF’s programs are also providing North Americans with an opportunity to be a part of the change. In 2014, I traveled to India with my then-11-year-old son Cooper, and we saw for ourselves what was happening in India and how the DFN programs were helping. When we returned, I approached the DFN about a partnership to run basketball camps for Dalit youth, with priority registration given to girls. Though there was initial hesitation about the feasibility of running basketball camps in a country known mostly for cricket, they liked the idea of providing athletic development opportunities for their students, so they agreed.

I returned home and launched Game On Camps with the hopes of using proceeds from basketball camps run here in North American to fund the camps overseas in India (as well as in Ukraine).

Though I currently live in Canada, I grew up playing basketball in Glenwood, so I decided to base the camps here at home where it all started for me. Glenwood responded with fervor: The summer camp was filled to capacity, the fall camp raised thousands of dollars in registrations and donations, and the winter camp expanded the reach to players from up and down the Roaring Fork Valley, including Carbondale, Silt and New Castle. In addition, local residents with no connection to basketball per se supported the venture with generous donations, and one local church sponsored the registration fees for all 40 Dalit players.

Resourced and ready, I returned to India in February with my 12-year-old daughter Mackenzie (she was one of the camp’s youth instructors), and together with a small team we ran the first basketball camp in India. Mixed in among the 40 players was a select group of young girls who had been rescued from the devadasi trade, a particularly heinous kind of sex trafficking that only happens to Dalit girls.

Though the stories of these 40 players are all incredible, one player stands out among the rest — the story of Persis. Persis was first introduced to me three years ago as the child actress who starred in the 2013 movie “Not Today” (directed by Jon Van Dyke, it opened in limited release in select cities through the U.S., Denver being one of them). In the movie, Persis plays the part of Annika, a young Dalit girl who is sold into sexual slavery by her unknowing father. The story, told through the eyes of Caden Welles, a privileged college student who travels to India with his buddies after losing a bet, gives North American audiences a glimpse into the plight of the Dalits.

Like her character Annika, Persis is a Dalit. However, unlike Annika, Persis’s family has “broken caste” and rejected the belief that their “bad karma” requires them to spend this life doing penance and being punished. Instead, Persis’s parents are raising their children to be strong, hopeful, educated and determined to succeed.

During the camp, Persis caught my eye as she dribbled her new basketball with ease up and down the makeshift asphalt court. Her mom is a teacher at the school and had helped organize the players for the camp, and her dad, I would later learn, was actually offered a spot on India’s national basketball team. However, because he was the oldest of eight siblings and his family struggled to find good employment because they were Dalit, he had to turn the opportunity down and instead go to work to support his siblings.

On the second day of camp, Persis and her father woke up before dawn in order to shoot baskets together before he had to be at work. Once school was over, the two were out on the court again, the father undoubtedly showing his daughter the moves that won him the recognition of the national team all those years ago. Before I left, I gave Persis’ parents the coaching gear that was donated by one of Game On’s sponsors. The shirts read, “Talent Identification and Development Program” on the front and Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan on the back.

The camp’s success caused the emergence of a surprising number of former Indian basketball players and even some current-day coaches. Aju Jacobs, head coach of one of India’s few professional women’s basketball teams, contacted Game On after discovering the camp on social media and is now making plans to take his professional women’s team to Hyderabad to connect with the young players who were a part of the camp. As well, the dean of students for Good Shepherd Schools used to play basketball. He even came out of his office the day we were setting up with a printed diagram of the official dimensions for the court and personally measured out the 70-foot distance between baskets.

It seems the beginning of an athletic system is taking shape there now that could launch Dalit youth into greater athletic opportunities, and possibly birth future stars of an Olympic women’s basketball team for India. The possibilities are inspiring, and it is in large part due to the efforts and involvement of many here in the Glenwood valley.

To learn more, Game On will be holding a registration and information night at the Glenwood Springs Community Center from 7-8 p.m. Tuesday, March 15. All are invited to come hear the fuller version of the story, look at photos, register for upcoming camps and find out more about how to be a part of it all.

Cassandra Irving (nee Hailey) is a Glenwood Springs native who as a high school basketball player was 1995 Western Slope League Player of the Year before she headed to Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. She founded Game On basketball.

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