Justin Williams knows full well what it means to be downtrodden and down on your luck.
The junior captain of the football team at Snyder High School once experienced those feelings of despair and hopelessness, because when he was a toddler, his mother and his family became homeless.
“I was about three or four years old,” said Williams, who is expected to be one of the top quarterbacks in Hudson County next fall. “And we had to live in a shelter for about a month.”
So when Snyder head football coach Matt Gallo suggested that his team could do something positive for the community in Jersey City by feeding meals to the Hope House, Williams applauded the idea.
“I always wanted to do something good for the community,” Williams said. “Hopefully, what we did can help change them. We also showed them that Snyder football cares about them.”
Eight Tigers accompanied their coach last week with three trays of baked ziti, courtesy of Hot House Pizza in Hoboken, and distributed the meals to about 10 families that were temporary residents of the Hope House Shelter.
“It was wonderful,” Hope House residential aide Willie Mae Scott said. “It was a great event for our residents and I think it was a great experience for the kids. The residents were very happy to have the players there. They were very appreciative.”
Scott said that having people who care about the residents of Hope House goes a long way toward the resident’s eventually recovering and getting back into the mainstream of life.
“When you get young groups like this, it helps a lot,” Scott said. “You get to see the results.”
Gallo is in his second year of being the head coach at Snyder, after serving as the head coach for the now-defunct coach program at St. Anthony and for two years as an assistant at Lincoln.
Gallo researched the area to find a proper vehicle for his team to volunteer for.
“We started to inquire about different places,” Gallo said. “Laurie Cherry [who coordinates services and programs for the homeless in Jersey City] recommended the Hope House. We wanted to be a bright light in the community. We have a platform as being a Jersey City football team and we want to use that platform as much as we can. We originally thought of raising money and giving a donation during Christmas time.”
But then Gallo reconsidered that and wanted to do something with a personal touch involving his players. So the Hope House was the choice.
“We had one date set, but we had to reschedule,” Gallo said.
“We have to schedule it,” Scott said. “It’s not easy to have these groups come in. As long as they’re scheduled, it works out fine.”
The Hope House group was comprised of all single mothers with children.
Gallo supplied the utensils, purchasing cups, plates, knives, forks, spoons and napkins.
“We also brought water and juices for the kids,” Gallo said. “Our kids were really enjoying themselves. They want to give back and this was a great way to do so. We want to be the bright light in the community. It’s more than just playing football. Our kids were more than willing. We only brought eight kids, but every kid on the team was willing to do it.”
Williams knew exactly how the residents were feeling. He lived it once. Sure, he was young, but those first childhood memories last a lifetime.
And now, Williams is the leader of the Tigers, both on and off the gridiron.
“Justin is a great kid,” Gallo said. “You will hear about him this year for sure. He’s a natural leader.”
“I felt good about myself,” Williams said. “I felt good doing it. It was great to let them know that somebody cares about them. I hate to say it brought back memories of when I was younger. So this meant a lot to me.”
It meant a lot to Williams’ teammate Jean Pierre as well.
“God blessed me with so many things,” Pierre said. “If I can go there and help people, well, it’s the best that I can do. It felt amazing.”
Pierre was a little apprehensive before going to the Hope House, which is located in downtown Jersey City.
“To be honest, I was a little nervous,” Pierre said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I never did anything like it before. I don’t know what I was thinking it was. But now, I am feeling blessed because God gave me the opportunity to help. He has given me so much in my life, so I felt I needed to give. And it felt great to help others when needed.”
As a team captain, Pierre stepped up and made it his business.
“It’s my responsibility,” Pierre said.
Needless to say, Gallo was extremely proud of his team. They may not win a lot of football games, but the Tigers certainly won over a few needy people and put smiles on their faces. That’s more important than any touchdown.
“I think we brightened their day by being there,” Gallo said. “They were seeing a group of young men who cared, who were smiling and interacting, who were talking to them. It was so positive to show these people that young men from Jersey City can truly do good things. It was definitely a positive event.”
And the Tigers are winners even before September rolls around.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com, follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar and listen to his Hudson County Sports podcast regularly on Facebook, Twitter and especially YouTube. This week’s guest is volleyball coaching legend Maria Nolan. All of the previous interviews can be found by searching Hudson County Sports podcast on YouTube.