One giant assist

CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Joseph Rivera, left, and his children Audrianna, Joseph Jr., center, and Andrea, far right, open presents surrounded by the Yucca Middle School’s basketball team. Each year, the team sponsors Christmas for a family chosen by the Lighthouse Mission.

By Eric Butler: CNJ Correspondent

Not all team huddles are ones where coaches instruct and players passively stand by and listen. Sometimes everyone gets involved in a semi-restrained free-for-all of opinion and exhortation.

And song?

Such was the case last Friday when not one, but two, Yucca seventh-grade girls basketball teams formed a huge huddle at the home of coach Ann Sharp.

All while team members told what they were thankful for during this holiday season, and in between Christmas carols, right in the middle of the crowd was 11-year-old Andrea Rivera.

Only a year younger than most of the other girls, Rivera wasn’t really part of either team.

She was there with her father Joseph and her twin siblings — six-year-olds Joe Jr. and Audrianna. It was part of a ritual started by Coach Sharp four years ago to give a needy family in the Clovis area a Christmas celebration replete with food, song and gifts.

The Riveras were surprised to learn, upon arriving at the house, that they were the focal point of the evening. One of the first things the kids discovered was that they were all being given bicycles.

Later, though, as she opened smaller gifts from Yucca squad members, Andrea reacted with wide-eyed glee every time – as if each of those subsequent presents were at least on par with the bike or the mp3 player that she also got that night.

“I almost started crying when they got the bikes and she started screaming because she got the bike,” Yucca 7th-grader Brandi Gomez said. “We tried to get her (Andrea) some of the things that we like — an mp3 player loaded with all kinds of songs that we like and she would like too.”

“What struck me about the family was their humility. You could tell they didn’t have a lot,” said Geri Gomez, unreleated to Brandi, who recommended the Riveras after becoming familiar with the family from her position at the Lighthouse Mission. “What really impressed me is that they weren’t into material things, but really simple things. It made me think about the Christmas spirit.”

The origin of this annual ritual of giving from the Yucca basketball teams occurred when Sharp was informed of the unfortunate circumstances of one of her own students.

Finding out that this student’s family was poorly equiped to have a full-fledged Christmas celebration, Sharp asked her own children to give one of their own presents to help spread the yuletide cheer.

Recommendations on which family should be the lucky recipients of the annual surprise gathering come from the Lighthouse Mission workers. Geri Gomez said that the Riveras often come as a group to receive breakfast from the charity organization.

“We want the kids to understand that, at Christmas time, it’s really more about the giving than the receiving. And they get a lot from giving to this family,” Sharp said.

“I’m really glad that they’ve carried it on. It’s really emotional,” said Clovis High sophomore Sydnee Horton, who was part of one of the first Yucca teams to help provide a holiday celebration for a local family. “I was crying before the family came. It still gets to me everytime.”

It also got to Joseph Rivera Sr., as he watched his children unwrap a bountiful harvest of gifts from people who were strangers only an hour before.

“They’re excited. They’re overwhelmed, like I am,” said Rivera, a construction worker in Clovis. “Thank God.”