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Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon creates 'Thanksmas' to raise awareness of area homelessness

TAMPA

A man can see a lot in Joe Maddon's line of work. An entire catalog of people and places. A hope chest of minutes and memories. And if you're fortunate enough to be the hottest manager in the major leagues, maybe even a January dinner party at the White House with the president.

Just know that, along the way, there is no explaining the moments that stick with you. The images that catch you by surprise, and forever lodge themselves in your heart.

It was not long ago that Maddon was visiting a homeless shelter in Bradenton. Maybe he was expecting despair. Perhaps he was anticipating depression. Yet there was no preparing for the moment when a door was opened, and he discovered a little girl sitting alone on a couch.

"I remember thinking, 'This is this child's life, to live in a shelter. All she knows of a normal home life is sitting on a couch in a shelter watching TV,' '' Maddon said. "When you see kids like that, it really hits you. There's no way a kid should have to live in those circumstances. You want to talk about innocent victims? My God.

"You can think what you want about homeless males or females of a certain age. I know people can be judgmental that way. But when you see kids? How do you not feel that? This isn't their choice. This is the life they were given."

Maybe now, you better understand the intentions of Thanksmas. It's a program Maddon began three years ago to raise awareness of the homeless situation in Tampa Bay. Maddon, along with a couple of dozen Rays employees, spend an afternoon cooking spaghetti, meatballs, sausage and pierogies in the Tropicana Field kitchen, then travel around the bay area for several days delivering meals at homeless shelters.

They were in Bradenton on Tuesday and in Tampa on Wednesday and will serve lunch today in Port Charlotte and dinner tonight in St. Petersburg. The idea is not to provide a holiday meal — it's always done between Thanksgiving and Christmas, hence the name Thanksmas — but to emphasize that homeless shelters are filled every day.

"Joe was talking to us earlier and he said his main mission is get the word out about this," said Moira Hinson, director of development at the Tampa Salvation Army. "It's heartwarming to know he understands what's going on. He understands that the people living here are hard-working people who just want to improve their lives.

"Most of them are regular people, just like the rest of us, who have had some struggles in their lives. We just hope people will take time out to remember these folks."

The Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless estimated there were 5,200 homeless people in the county on any given day in 2007, and those numbers were growing. Hinson said the Tampa Salvation Army is already seeing the impact of the nation's economic troubles.

"We have 200-225 people living here every day, but where we're really starting to see it is with families coming to us in need of emergency assistance," Hinson said. "They can't pay the mortgage, they can't pay the utility bill. They're having to make the choice between food and paying the rent. We've seen about a 25 percent increase in families right on the edge of homelessness, and we're trying to prevent that from happening."

For about two hours Wednesday evening, there was a respite from reality. Maddon, hitting coach Steve Henderson, third-base coach Tom Foley, radio broadcaster Dave Wills and more than a dozen Rays employees gathered in the Salvation Army kitchen to prepare and deliver about 200 dinners.

While others prepared food in the kitchen and served as waiters, Maddon worked the room. He moved from table to table, shaking hands, signing autographs and listening to stories. He asked for a show of hands from Phillies fans and teasingly suggested he had a special meal prepared for them.

Already, the program is growing. Thanksmas is serving more meals than ever, and the Rays have gotten Champs Sports to provide sneakers and socks for the children, while Wal-Mart donated gift cards.

Maddon's plan is to eventually take the program national, to hopefully get teams in other major-league cities involved in their own communities.

"Coming off the season we just did, and the prominence of the organization right now, it's probably the most optimal time to get this message out there," Maddon, 54, said. "People are going to pay attention to me more right now. I get that. I understand that. And if my voice is stronger, I'm going to use it.

"But, to me, the people we should be focusing on are the ones who work in these places. They're unbelievable."

He is back to shaking hands now. Helping children with their new shoes and signing the backs of their new Rays T-shirts. The night is nearly over, and no one's life has changed appreciably.

Yet there are memories behind the nods and the smiles.

A sense that this is one of those moments that needs to be remembered.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon creates 'Thanksmas' to raise awareness of area homelessness 12/17/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 21, 2008 9:08pm]

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