CLEVELAND — Screams of elation and disbelief came from the mouths of 25 elementary school students when they looked through the grocery store windows at their Afro-wearing, nearly 7-foot host.
Cleveland Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen was swarmed and welcomed with smiles as he entered his sixth annual Meals and Math Thanksgiving event on Nov. 17. It was the first time since 2019 that Allen was able to hold his event in person because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The children weren’t alone in their exuberance.
“We had to do Zoom calls during COVID and it’s not the same without the kids in person, seeing their faces and being able to say hi to them,” Allen said. “Today, they were screaming at the window before I came in. It brings me joy just to see how happy they are for something like this.”
Food giveaways during the Thanksgiving holidays by professional athletes are honorable and common, but events such as Allen’s have an immediate learning component, especially for the children.
On this day, a mix of third and fourth grade students chosen from Orchard STEM School on the west side of Cleveland learned how to shop and budget. Allen provided each student with a sample grocery list, a calculator and a budget of $100 (in the form of the grocery store’s gift card). Allen and volunteers shopped with the children and assisted them in calculating their costs.
Allen began this type of charity during his rookie year with the Brooklyn Nets. He made it clear from the start what he wanted this learning exercise and donation to provide.
“I’m always big on STEM [science, technology, engineering and math],” Allen said. “I’m always big on teaching kids how to function for themselves and by helping them learn to budget. I know this could be a corny way to do it, but I do think it makes a difference in the future.”
Allen’s past certainly made a difference in his future. He was inspired by his grandmother, who, until she died many years ago, would participate in food drives and pass out food.
“She’d even do this when she didn’t even have a lot of food for herself,” Allen said. “She always taught us to help people less fortunate, and if you’re in position, you should always help. That always stuck with me.”
STEM has also been a part of Allen’s life since he was young, when his mother, Cheryl, and father, Leonard Allen Sr., emphasized this type of education to him and his older brother, Leonard Allen Jr. Allen Sr. was a center at San Diego State from 1981 to 1985. He was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks, but he didn’t make the team. After a stint overseas, Allen Sr. began a career at Dell.
“I love robotics in terms of engineering,” Allen said. “When I was younger, I made my own robotic arm. I had to write the code for it and it worked. I was also able to build my own computer [in high school].”
Orchard STEM School principal Andrea Moss said she is glad Allen chose her school.
“We want to meet the math need because our country is suffering from the lack of STEM education, and we want to see the need of our families that are in need of food,” Moss said. “This is providing our kids with real-world applications. It’s bringing math to life for our children. It’s also telling them that no matter what age you are, you can do something for your families.”
The event wasn’t exactly a shopping spree as the children pushed their carts down each aisle checking their grocery list, and more importantly, checking and calculating the food prices before adding groceries to their basket. Once goals were reached, the students went to the checkout line, where they were met by Allen and other volunteers, who made sure they weren’t over budget.
“Some kids were under and some kids were over budget,” said Allen, who covered the costs of students who were just over budget. “Honestly, they did excellent in terms of making sure their families had all they needed for Thanksgiving. I saw potatoes, vegetables and hams. They actually did pretty amazing.”
Moss said the same of Allen.
“This [event] shows that he cares about children, cares about education and cares about families,” Moss said. “I’m excited for our kids and I can’t wait for them to share with the other students how they had an opportunity to meet an NBA player and also help their families.”
Through his partnership with Microsoft, Allen also provided each student with a Surface tablet and with Beats by Dre headphones. Students also received items from the Cavaliers and the NBA.
“Selfishly, I love doing this and being in front of the kids, talking to them, hyping them up and teaching them how to be self-sufficient,” Allen said. “Teaching them math and trying to show them other interests like my mom showed me. That means a lot to me.”
The day after Allen’s charitable event, he returned to the basketball court at the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse for the first time in several days. He missed consecutive games during the Cavaliers’ five-game losing streak with an unspecified illness. With Allen back, it took double overtime, but the Cavaliers defeated the visiting Charlotte Hornets. He provided a needed lift with 20 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks.
“He was impactful on both ends of the floor,” said Cavaliers guard Darius Garland. “He was getting so many blocks, setting hard screens, dunking on people, catching lobs and just being the guy he is. It was good to have him back out there.”
Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who was elated about Allen’s return, described the correlation between Allen’s play on the basketball court and his humanitarian efforts.
“Allen leads by example and when he goes out and plays with effort, his teammates follow,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s the same off the court. He knows it’s just not about him. It’s about those around him. It’s about the environment. It’s about the community. It’s about how he can help make things easier for everyone around him.”