When kicker Jay Feely, now with the Arizona Cardinals, was a student at the University of Michigan, he frequently ran into homeless people around the Ann Arbor campus. His normal protocol was to buy them food and chat with them, rather than just give them money and worry it would be used for something unproductive.
But, Feely also relied on his instincts to make decisions. One day he struck up a conversation with one of those homeless men. The man, who was in his mid-30s, told Feely his life story; that he had been a school teacher, but alcoholism had taken a hold on him and he had lost everything. Feely then did something he normally didn’t do – he gave the man all the money he had in his wallet. He told the man he hoped it would help and that he would one day be able to turn his life around.
That sort of empathy was something that had been instilled in Feely practically from birth. One of his older brothers, Michael, had been born mentally and physically disabled. He and his other brothers took inspiration and lessons from the life that lasted 26 years, understanding that there were many people who had challenges far beyond what they could imagine. They also saw how Michael’s life was able to touch and inspire so many others. Several members of the Feely’s extended family went into medicine because of how they had been impacted by Michael. In fact, Feely’s mother, a rehabilitation counselor, started a foundation to help those in need of rehabilitation services.
It was that foundation that provided the launching pad for what is now The Feely Family Foundation.
Feely, who went undrafted after graduating in 1999, was eventually signed by the Atlanta Falcons in 2001. In 1999 and 2000 he played first for the Florida Bobcats and then Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League.
Once in the NFL his community work grew and at that point he shifted the focus of The Feely Family Foundation to helping children in ways ranging from education to life skills. The foundation is run somewhat differently than many others. Feely and his wife, Rebecca, fund it entirely themselves.
One of their major endeavors is now their dual partnership with Mission of Hope in Haiti and the Clinton Foundation, run by former President Bill Clinton.
The foundation’s work in Haiti ranges from providing soccer fields, sports equipment, gyms and tracks to supplying 70,000 meals a day to a school attended by 6,000 children.
The partnership with the Clinton Foundation arose when Feely discovered that, because of government corruption in Haiti, only 10% of monetary donations were being distributed to those in need.
“The Clinton Foundation said, ‘if you give us the money you promised, you can tell us exactly what projects what you want to do and we’ll get it done,’” Feely said. “I’ve got a good relationship with President Clinton and we’ve been able to facilitate some of the projects we were already working on with Mission of Hope.”
Feely has traveled to Haiti four times since the earthquake in 2010 that devastated a huge area of the country. He takes friends and family members, including his two oldest children. Much of the work they do is hands-on.
“We’ve rebuilt a church and a couple of homes,” Feely said. “They have no electricity and to get water they have to walk a mile down the mountain to get it and carry it back in buckets. A lot of the people doing it are six and seven-year-old girls. I always take my group to the village and make sure everyone takes a bucket and takes this walk. It’s literally like a religious experience. You never think about water the same way again.
Feely has taken this work a step further. On one of his trips he met a young Haitian man who, along with his six brothers and sisters, was living in a tent. The young man, Delmonte, became Feely’s translator. Feely learned that Delmonte hoped to come to the United States to study. With assistance from The Feely Family Foundation, Delmonte is now in an English-intensive program at Arizona State University in preparation for applying to colleges. A talented soccer player, he hopes to earn an athletic scholarship to a school where he can study business and then return to Haiti as a business leader so he can help his community.
It is individual stories like these that continue to inspire Feely and reinforce to him and those around him, the importance of the work he and the foundation are doing.
As for that homeless man he met in Ann Arbor, Feely got the surprise of his life a couple of years later. One of his teammates returned from making a visit to a local public school. He tracked Feely down and told him that a man he had met asked him to say hello. Feely didn’t recognize the name. Then his teammate explained. It was the homeless man Feely had given the money to. He was sober and had returned to teaching. He had turned his life around.
For more information on The Feely Family Foundation, visit www.jayfeely.com.