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A small idea still helping feed the hungry 15 years later

"It just feels good to help people and that's what Coach4food became."

It has been 15 years since Coach4Food became the name of a program that put North Bay’s charitable arm on the map. A true grassroots movement started by Gateway City native Tom Hedican who says those ideals were rooted in him from an early age.

“My mom was a teacher and I remember as a kid we'd be delivering stuff to people's houses and I had no clue who they were, but it's Christmas and it turns out that it was a student in her class in grade two and my mom knew who wouldn't have gifts or food. My mom and dad would pack up my sister and me and they'd be dropping stuff off and, my mom never really said much about it and I never thought much about it until later in life.”

After getting an early paternal influence in philanthropy, Hedican also got that idea from his favorite musical artist Bruce Springsteen who had a reoccurring theme at his concerts.

“After seeing over 30 Bruce Springsteen concerts I would listen to him talk about the food bank at every concert. If he's in Ottawa he knows the name of the food bank and he talks about it from the stage, he knows how many pounds of food the kids eat every year from that food bank and he has those people at his concerts to collect donations and no one else is allowed to collect or do anything except food bank people and he does this everywhere he goes,” says Hedican.

“So, I thought ‘what could I do’, and I had a four-week break before Christmas and came up with this, what I called, a harebrained idea of trading whatever knowledge or expertise that I had for food and obviously it took off.”

That may be a bit of an understatement by Hedican as Coach4Food became the number one fundraiser for the North Bay Food Bank and was adopted by many other cities with hockey programs across the country and into the United States, with even some National Hockey League clubs getting involved.

“It was just trying to make a difference,” says Hedican. “We were making a good living, but I realized that we weren't making a life and that was about giving back. It's almost a selfish thing because you feel so good doing those things. We've started a couple of Go Fund Me accounts for people that needed things in town, and you know it just feels good to help people and that's what Coach4food became. It just became a vessel for people to do something good and it was easy. You could donate or you could collect food and you could do it however you want it and it was easy for people.”

That combination is what led to the program really taking off.

“It was so surreal to see it in other cities,” says Hedican.

“The owner of the New Jersey Devils found out about the program and he offered us the Prudential Centre to run the program. So, we went down there and it turned into the largest sports-related fundraiser they ever had, including NFL games. Over a three-day period, we had a chance to do some practices and they gave me some Devils alumni to work with, which was a fantastic experience.”

It was during this trip to New Jersey in which Hedican’s fandom and appreciation for the work of Springsteen really went to another level.

“We had a chance to tour the food bank, and it was as big as Memorial Gardens, it was incredible. We met with the founder Kathleen DiChiara who started the food bank over 40 years ago out of the trunk of her truck and she told us stories and other employees told us stories about Springsteen. They said he doesn’t just collect food for them at the concerts, he will show up on a Saturday morning by himself to unload trucks, unannounced. They said that he established unnamed charities to help people in the area. So, for instance, a single mother who pulled into a gas station and needed work on her car would have the bill taken care of, and that gas station would just send Springsteen the bill. He did home renovations for people who were down on their luck. He just told the contractors that if they saw people in need, to fix the problem and send him the bill. It was all billed to an organization called “The Foundation” and an investigative report found out about this through looking at tax returns. So that was very inspiring to hear those stories.”

A few years later Hedican would get to meet “The Boss” through a series of events that eventually had Hedican in contact with Springsteen’s personal trainer who received articles about Coach4Food.

“They had a series of concerts at The Meadowlands and we had tickets for the Tuesday night, but we arrived in New Jersey on Monday. I get a phone call from Tony Strollo (Springsteen’s trainer who passed away in 2012) saying ‘where are you?’ and I said we were across the street at the hotel and he said ‘get to the stadium as soon as you can, Bruce wants to meet you before the show.’”

And it lived up to the expectations.

“We were sent up to the family and friends lounge and there’s Clarence Clemons, there’s Steven Van Zandt, there’s Max Weinberg, they were all just sitting at the table next to us and then, it couldn’t get more dramatic, we walk into his dressing room where there’s a black curtain that he’s standing on the other side of so all you could see was his silhouette and then he walks through that curtain and he could not have been more friendly. He knew all about Coach4Food, he said that he had read all the articles and said that’s really something. He had the first article with the headline “Following Springsteen’s Lead” and he signed it and wrote ‘“Great Work.”’

A dream meeting aside, Coach4Food is something that Hedican says he hopes will continue to inspire people to get involved in their community and help those in need.

“I remember the first year we did it, we brought in 1,000 pounds and I didn’t think too much after that, other than I was proud of the 1,000 pounds we were able to raise. The next year I had people calling and asking if we were going to do that again and I wasn’t going to say no. So, I started taking about a month off work every year to organize everything,” says Hedican.

“Then it got bigger and bigger. We did 5,000 pounds of food in the second year. Then we did 60,000, 75,000 the year after. That was followed up by three straight years of over 100,000 pounds of food for each year. It just kept growing and more people jumped on board, and the Ontario Hockey League got involved and we had over 50 teams doing it. Hearing the reports from people all over the province about what they had been able to do was a pretty cool thing to see. All I did was trade in what expertise I had in exchange for something people could do. And anyone can do that,” he says.

“There’s no reason you can’t trade a skill or your expertise for something good. Whether that’s food or whatever you're passionate about, I think anybody can do it. It’s something we’re very proud of.”