Column: ‘Incredible’ teen Arden Pala uses basketball to connect with kids, has a heart for the homeless

Program at Perkins K-8 School in Barrio Logan has opened doors for kids facing housing and financial challenges

Rarely are you blown away in this business. In a sports world filled with bloated paychecks and equally out-of-proportion egos, self-aggrandizing agendas and look-at-me social media flexing, it’s easy to become jaded.

Then you meet Arden Pala.

He’s 13 and already has done more personal sleeve rolling to aid fellow San Diegans than 95 percent of adults in the city. He penned three children’s books and donated the proceeds to a service agency and the region’s COVID-19 response. He wrote and produced a documentary on homelessness. He launched the non-profit Sports4Kids to increase opportunities for those in challenged areas.

In December, Arden worked with the Lucky Duck Foundation to distribute nearly 1,600 care packages to those in need. And Tuesday, the inexhaustible smile broker was at Perkins K-8 School in Barrio Logan for the weekly basketball program he built at a place with a family homeless rate hovering around one-third.


“He’s proving,” Lucky Duck Executive Director Drew Moser said, “you can be any age and make a difference.”

Arden leaves jaws agape after others begin to fathom the depths of his heartwarming well of compassion and caring. There are talkers. There are doers. Then there are those rare few who insist on being remarkably more.

As many bemoan a lost generation of self-centered kids with heads buried in phones, an Arden comes along to remind us that everything just might be alright. Better than alright, actually.

So for one day it was time to surprise Arden, the one who surprises others on a daily basis. The Lucky Duck Foundation, which provides a basketball, jersey and water bottle to the 30 to 35 kids in the basketball program, helped orchestrate a visit from Harlem Globetrotters player Saul “Flip” White.

Harlem Globetrotters player Saul ‘Flip’ White Jr. entertains kids Tuesday at Perkins K-8 School in Barrio Logan.(Meg McLaughlin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

At a school that lacked a physical education instructor from last September until this week, where kids sleep in cars, wondering from where the next meal or shower will come, there’s magic in a basketball and a teen who cares enough to connect.

“It was great for them to see if you really try your best and you put 100 percent into something, what you can become,” Arden said of White’s visit. “That was something amazing for them to see.”

That’s the word White used to describe Arden.

“I told him it’s amazing to see what he’s doing at that age,” said White, who played a rollicking full-court game with the kids. “To have the that frame of mind is incredible. You don’t get too many 13-year-olds thinking about what adults think about. That’s what he’s doing.”

This is not blustering on the campaign trail or a hollow exercise in political lip service. Where Arden sees a need, he acts. Where gears grind, he applies grease. Where others see walls, he sees doors.

There’s no posturing or patience for stagnation. He just goes to work, one dribble, one care package, one conversation at a time.

“He’s got a huge heart,” said Perkins Principal Fernando Hernandez. “He’s on a mission to make a difference in the lives of others. I don’t know that he fully appreciates the impact that he’s having.”

Arden attends Francis Parker Middle School, a part of a school system with abundant resources. He said his parents made volunteering and giving back a priority. His older brother Kenan started his own non-profit, Kids4Community.

A seed was planted. Arden watered it until it became a towering oak.

“Our school is one of the schools that does not have the fortune and opportunities that he’s lucky to have,” said Hernandez, who leads a school with a documented poverty rate based on free or reduced lunches that ranks among the highest in California. “He’s cognizant of that.

“Our kids, everything in their lives is impacted. Some don’t have a kitchen to go to, a shower to go to, a table to do their homework. A lot out of our kids have no opportunity to participate in Little League or a soccer league. There’s no YMCA in our community.

“Arden is bringing an activity that they could not access away from the school because those parents have bigger priorities and needs to address.”

Why do it? At that age? For Arden, it’s simple.

“Giving back really feels good,” he said.

This month, the basketball program is expanding to Edison and Horton elementary schools, where they will add soccer. More kids will be reached, more will be helped, more will be offered a hand and an ear. Roots are reaching farther into fertile soil.

Talking to the San Diego Rotary Club last October, Arden drummed up support for the city’s homeless. His polish and sense of purpose caused a man from the audience to ask for a peek at the teen’s birth certificate.

It’s typical for people to joke that Arden must be older.

“Sometimes, I guess,” he said. “I just like helping kids.”

He absolutely is, in ways that illuminate an inspirational path. If only more of us would follow.

Teen and Harlem Globetrotters

Local teen Arden Pala formed a non-profit called Sports4Kids. To learn more:

Pala’s weekly basketball program at Perkins K-8 School in Barrio Logan was visitied Tuesday by Saul “Flip” White Jr. of the Harlem Globetrotters. The team will play two games Feb. 25 at Pechanga Arena.