Rahaf Hlail, 12, of Portland looks on as she receives a COVID-19 vaccination Sunday from registered nurse Peggy Akers during a pop-up clinic and basketball tournament at Kennedy Park in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A volunteer-led basketball league hosted a pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Portland’s Kennedy Park on Sunday, building immunity and community on the court.

Nurses from Northern Light Health distributed doses under a small awning next to the Fox Street basketball courts to a handful of recipients. Before the game – between two halves of a local girls’ team – speakers in French and English encouraged community members to get their shots.

“We have the power to defend our communities,” organizer and volunteer coach Elizabeth Capone-Newton said, adding that this applied to vaccination, upcoming city elections, and community-building through sports. “That’s what we’re about.”

Rahaf Hlail, 12, received her first shot Sunday afternoon, along with her sister. She said she hadn’t felt too limited by pandemic-era restrictions, but was happy to build immunity anyway.

Saad Hlail 14, of Portland gets a vaccination from Helen Peasley RN with Northern Light during a vaccination clinic/basketball tournament Sunday at Kennedy Park in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I didn’t really feel anything,” she said of the shot itself, but “now I can pretty much do whatever I want.”

Last week, Capone-Newton wrote to state health officials to notify them about the event and emphasize the importance of encouraging vaccination in vulnerable communities.

“Maybe the people who need the protection of the vaccine the most will come outside on Sunday, to watch an elementary girls’ basketball game, and leave with a lifesaving shot. A community-saving shot. A state-of-Maine-saving shot. I am hopeful,” Capone-Newton said in her letter.

On Sunday, Capone-Newton said she had volunteered for three years in a city-led recreational league and had been frustrated to see funding cut during the pandemic. So she has started a league of her own – Girls Dream Basketball, which brings together girls between grades 3 and 5, many of them from the East End Community School.

Capone-Newton and other volunteers also set up signs advertising a slate of candidates for this week’s city charter commission election, most of them progressives, who she said would likely have deep enough roots in the community to know its needs – including recreational sports.

Workers set up a makeshift COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Kennedy Park in Portland on Sunday. On nearby basketball courts, there was a basketball game for elementary school students taking place in connection with the clinic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Nyamuon “Moon” Nguany Machar, an alumna of the recreational basketball program who coached on Sunday, extolled the virtues of community sports in a speech before the game.

“This is so much more than basketball,” she said. “This is so much more than a sport. … I built a lot of character being part of a team.”

The children here, she said, “are going to remember who showed up for them.”

Melanie Beaulieu, the grandmother of Annaliyah Sok, a 9-year-old player, also expressed her appreciation for the program.

“I’ve watched my granddaughter grow in these programs,” she said before the game. “I look around at all these beautiful, smiling faces, and it brings a feeling to my heart.”

As the pace of vaccination declines across the U.S. and in Maine, health workers have been holding pop-up clinics in vulnerable and hard-to-reach communities. Peggy Akers, one of the nurses distributing shots on Sunday, said she recently held clinics on several Maine islands.

“It’s a real gift, being able to do this,” she said. “I feel like I’m injecting hope into people’s arms.”

Elementary school students compete in a basketball game during the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Kennedy Park in Portland on Sunday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

As of Sunday morning, 53.88 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million population had received the first dose of a vaccine, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. Of the eligible 12-plus population, 61.16 percent had received a first dose.

Capone-Newton said she was planning another basketball-vaccine event for June 27, from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the same location: Kennedy Park on Fox Street. Next time, she plans to offer $20 gift certificates to Walmart for those who get their shots.

Starting this week, another mobile clinic will be open just around the corner, outside Rising Tide Brewery on Fox Street. Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will spend four days at the Portland site, and then another four days in Old Orchard Beach.

The Portland Sea Dogs, along with Northern Light Mercy Hospital, also plan to offer the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine during their game Thursday at Hadlock Field. From 5-7 p.m., people who receive shots will also get vouchers for free admission to a game, along with a hot dog, water and a Sea Dog biscuit.

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