Falcons give back

by Eric Levine || AHL On The Beat Archive

The Springfield Falcons have had a positive impact on the ice this season, remaining at or near the top of the Eastern Conference standings throughout the 2012-13 campaign. The Falcons have their fans energized, with the locals believing that this will be the first Springfield club to qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs since 2003.

While the club has sparked enthusiasm not displayed in quite some time by its fans, the on-ice achievements seem trivial when compared to the importance of the partnership formed between the Falcons and Friends of the Homeless, the largest emergency shelter for adult individuals in Western Massachusetts.

Established in the late 1980s, Friends of the Homeless, a non-profit agency, brings in non-violent individuals over the age of 18 who are in crisis. Friends of the Homeless has transformed recently from a "warehouse" shelter – one that takes people in at night and sends them back onto the street when the sun rises – into a comprehensive program that works on a daily basis to eradicate homelessness.

A new resource center at Friends of the Homeless opened in 2010, providing services to help people find permanent housing solutions. The shelter is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and offers bed, bath, laundry facilities, and three meals a day to those truly in need. People who have no place else to go and venture into the shelter are referred to as "clients" or "guests" as a sign of respect. The program at Friends of the Homeless provides clients with services like dental, medical and mental healthcare, income eligibility, job training and placement, housing referrals, and nutritional access.

Friends of the Homeless owns and operates 60 single-room occupancy units and 50 efficiency apartments at their two locations in Springfield, supplementing low-income housing options in the area. This is in addition to a total of 150 men and women placed in dormitory beds in the shelter on a nightly basis.

Although supported by full-time staff members, Friends of the Homeless relies on the help of volunteer workers to provide services and distribute meals to the clients and also needs the support of the public with financial and physical donations.

"Because we serve such a volume of people, we have to get certain efficiencies with our food and with our services," Bill Miller, Executive Director of Friends of the Homeless, said. "Even to pay the water bill or the light bill, it’s a high-volume purchase. The state pays a portion, but they don’t expect to pay the full amount. They expect communities are supporting the entities that are out there."

Falcons players became a part of this community effort on Nov. 29, when nine players arrived at Friends of the Homeless to serve dinner to the agency’s clients. Led by captain Ryan Craig and alternate captain Nick Holden, the players split up into a group that helped prepare and distribute the meals to the long line of clients and into another group that greeted and took pictures with the shelter’s guests.

"I think as hockey players, we’re so grateful for what we and our families are able to get each and every day and how we’re able to live," Craig said. "I don’t think anyone does it for the credit. I think they do it to come and try to put a smile on people’s faces."

While the impact of a smile may seem small to an average person, those who work regularly with the homeless understand the influence that the interactions with people such as hockey players have on less-fortunate individuals. Miller has been with Friends of the Homeless since 2005 and recognizes the positive influence that volunteers like the Falcons have on the clients or guests, terms assigned to provide the people with a measure of decency rarely shown toward them in everyday life.

"We had a guest some years ago who ended up going into substance abuse treatment and then became sober,” Miller said. “He said, ‘You were the first man who ever spoke kindly to me.’ We read about abusive homes and know that they are a bad thing to have, but they are out there. There are people growing up in bad situation that are tough, tough stuff. A kindly volunteer, you don’t even know the impact that you’re having."

Holden, who along with fellow alternate captain Andrew Joudrey worked to set up the partnership with Friends of the Homeless, felt the positive impact the Falcons had during their visit.

"Going through the line, everyone was smiling, and if we can put a smile on somebody’s face who’s not having a great day, or with the weather not being nice if it warms them up a little bit, then it’s good," Holden said. "It’s nice to talk to people who don’t normally get to interact with us that often, and if it brings a bright spot to their day that’s great."

During the Falcons’ visit, left wing Matt Calvert sported a hairnet while preparing meals in the kitchen. Holden smiled during the entire hour, sitting down at a table and conversing with the guests after his responsibilities in the kitchen had ended. Right wing Wade MacLeod and goaltender Paul Dainton were pictured hard at work the next day in The Republican. Centers Jake Hansen and Ryan Johansen, left wing Sean Collins and defenseman Tim Erixon happily posed for pictures with the excited and gracious guests.

Although only for an hour, Miller sees a correlation between volunteers such as the Falcons spending time at Friends of the Homeless and the success of the clients in leaving the shelter with permanent housing and work.

"Having the Falcons come is a cut above," Miller said, "because it’s kind of like a local celebrity group. Volunteers keep people who are here every day fresh. Quite honestly, you can get a little burned out here. To have people, fresh horses, fresh reserves come in from the community, it lightens the load. I enjoyed having the Falcons come out, as did the guests."

The contributions the Falcons are making toward Friends of the Homeless extends beyond the hour spent serving meals.

Holden and Joudrey are spearheading a program in which Falcons players will be taking a holiday wish list from Friends of the Homeless and turning those wishes into reality. On the afternoon of Dec. 12, the Falcons organization will be delivering new clothing and toiletry necessities for the clients of Friends of the Homeless, all purchased through player cash contributions.

When the Falcons host the Norfolk Admirals on Dec. 30, they will attempt to help out Friends of the Homeless by asking fans to bring packaged white socks for donation. Additionally, the Falcons will host a group of clients of Friends of the Homeless, through a donation of 25 tickets by the Falcons Friends Program. The Falcons front office staff has also pledged to serve meals at Friends of the Homeless around the new year.

"Some of these people have grown up in this area poor, and they’ve never been inside the MassMutual Center,” Miller said. “For some, it’s an amazing treat. Most of us in the mainstream wouldn’t think of [attending a game] as a big deal, but it’s a big deal for people living in poverty.”

For the Falcons, the effort to make a bright spot in these guests’ lives isn’t geared around doing it for publicity. It’s about giving back to the community that has accepted these players from all over the world as their own.

"Hockey players have always been well known for their community involvement and certainly we’re no different,” Falcons President and General Manager Bruce Landon said. “Our players this year, and every year have stepped up. You don’t even have to ask them. You post something on the board and before you know it you have 12 to 15 volunteers."

According to Landon, nearly $500,000 has been donated over the years by Springfield Falcons Charities, the club’s official charitable organization, to non-profit and youth programs.

"As hockey players you move to different communities that aren’t your hometown,” Craig said. “Just to see how my family gets accepted into the community and the schools and the programs that are available to them, it makes you want to give back that much more because you become a part of the community. You spend eight or nine months here, you want to win a championship for the city, and I think that you become attached to the places you play because of the support you get.”

The community effort to end homelessness comes full-circle for Miller when a former client comes back to thank the staff. He cited an example of a former alcoholic who wound up at Friends of the Homeless; the man sobered up and was moving to work in Providence, and stopped by to thank Miller just last week. A 65-year-old college graduate with a culinary degree lived in Friends of the Homeless’ single-housing units just five years ago; she wrote recently to let the staff know she had settled down into elderly housing and wanted to know what she could do to give back.

Hearing these stories and seeing the situations the clients are in firsthand when visiting Friends of the Homeless can put certain things into perspective and increase the desire to give back, in the end keeping the shelter running. In this case, it takes a village to end homelessness. Those who contribute will be helping a greater cause, and the return will be invaluable.

"We’re so fortunate to have all the necessities and a little bit more, and when you come here and see that people need basic meals you take a step back and realize how fortunate you are," Holden said. "As hockey players we’re very blessed, so if we can give back in any way I think it’s something that we should do."

"To care about people whose better days are maybe behind them, that makes a difference. I think it will make a difference to the players too. To volunteer here, to hand out a meal to hungry people, it changes you a little," Miller said.

He added, "[The clients] will thank you. And you will get a feeling from it that money can’t buy."

For more information on Friends of the Homeless, visit FOHSpringfield.org.