When Kelly Whelan’s sons were grown and out of the house, she suddenly found herself praying for a new purpose in life. For Whelan, a sales associate with Star One Real Estate in Cincinnati, raising her children had been her number one priority. But now that they didn’t need her in the same way, she sought a new sense of meaning and trusted that an answer would come.
While refereeing a basketball game at Hughes High School one night, Whelan—who, at the time, had been a ref of high school and college basketball for 47 years—noticed a special dynamic between the players and their coach. The players had heart and skill, but they seemed to lose energy quickly. Whelan wanted to learn more.
She discovered that the inner-city team didn’t have regular access to proper nutrition before games and that their coach, who was deeply committed to their wellbeing, was giving them pep talks to help them persevere through games. Hughes High School has a Title 1 designation, meaning at or more than 40% of students at the school live in poverty and lack the daily necessities to get through the school day—let alone a team sport.
“I knew I had to do something,” Whelan says. But she didn’t quite know what. She decided to draft an email to 20 of her friends and fellow church members to ask for help. “These boys needed to eat before their games, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe a few of us could help feed them.’ Within an hour, people were responding, asking what I needed and how they could help.”
For the remainder of the basketball season, Whelan had an army of volunteers who helped provide food and served every player before every game. That was eight years ago.
Today, a team of nearly 150 volunteers continues to provide meals to the Hughes High School basketball team, but they also do so much more. Over the years, they’ve provided clothing, shoes, crock pots and mini-fridges. Each year, volunteers put together holiday gifts and baskets for each team member as well. They’ve even donated cars so that the team could have transportation to and from games. Some volunteers have hired the players as employees and organized tutoring and educational services to ensure the players have access to whatever they need to keep their academics up.Whelan says she and her volunteers have gained much more than a group of kids to support. They’ve gained perspective and heartfelt understanding. “Every week, we serve these kids dinner, and we learn about who they are,” Whelan says. “We learn about their lives and their families. And they get to know us, too. There’s this incredible bond between everyone.”