It all started in the early 80s. Hot dog carts used to adorn the downtown Indy landscape, and it was always a treat to peer from my tip toes into the bin as the vendor would take my lunch out of the water. My Mom always made sure more than one lunch was prepared. “Find a friend," she would tell me, our hands full of the days lunch, its other consumers yet to be selected.
I always saw the men on the benches. The American Legion Mall was our usual destination- occasionally we’d go to Monument Circle or Military Park. Regardless of the spot, my Mom encouraged me to find those men hungry for a hot dog- and perhaps, just a new friend with which to talk. That’s mostly what I did. Talked. Talked about the Reds, the Cubs, IU basketball, the race, or perhaps, just the sun that warmed our lunch that day. I always found friends on those benches. In my eyes, men interested in my latest observations on the world of sports, my opinions on what player may catapult the Pacers to that elusive .500 record. In reality, they were likely eyes that had seen struggle and pain, circumstances foreign to a fortunate 10 year old- eyes belonging to a man willing to listen to elementary drivel, for with it came the unpredicted next meal. I didn’t worry about that back then. I just kept tally of the number of new friends. “Two and half." I reported to my Mom, one day. “I made two and a half new friends.”.
“A half?”, she asked. “What is a half friend?”
Well, I’d talked to one. But, he just listened. He never talked back. “Half a friend," I said.
If only then, I knew.
**** It was in my early adult years when my Mom asked me the question. "Do you remember your friends on the benches?"
I did, of course. "Those men were homeless. As a little guy, you never let that stop you from making friends. It never should. Don't forget that."
**** Thirty five years later, and I still expound on my observations of sports. Unaware of how many half friends may be taking it in, but aware of the opportunity it presents. I love my job because I love my city, and I’ve always tried to use my voice for those who otherwise may have long ago felt muted.
I’m extremely fortunate those opinions have a platform, and I’m grateful for the opportunity that those platforms create. One of those opportunities took place last night.
Thanks to my position at FOX Sports 97.5, I’m occasionally invited to talk sports as part of the Sunday night “Indy Sports Buzz” on WISH-TV8. It’s a fun segment, a chance to playfully debate with Indy sports media. The segment is sponsored by St. Elmo Steakhouse, the reward for each segment is a gift card to Indy’s legendary staple of fine dining.
I love the steak, the shrimp cocktail sauce is an Indy staple, and the turkey burger at St Elmo affiliate Harry & Izzy’s is my favorite in town. Eventually, however, I realized some things are meant to be shared. Some things are so good, you want even your half friends to partake.
**** Rock bottom for Ryan Little came in January. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, not for a kid from the West Side who had worked a good union job, doing the things his parents hoped for him, even after their divorce in his early teen years. Nonetheless, there he was. Sitting in a jail cell, the car he’d stolen and abandoned in the chase just being recovered by police. The car eventually stopped, but Ryan’s life was still spinning out of control.
He needed, the money you see. He’d gone through the rest. His earnings from his job working on the Indiana wind farms. All gone. Each day, he drove with his union mates to oil and clean those large blades, ensuring that they’d again spin 360 degrees to create energy. Now, his energy was gone. His co-workers and those wind farms kept churning, but Ryan- still shy of his 30th birthday, sat idle in a jail cell. The job was gone- he was let go when the union dues became a casualty of his addiction, and the money was scarce. The cravings were not. That’s when Ryan, whose body developed an addiction to opiates after being hit by a car seven years earlier, turned to auto theft. Seemed like an okay idea in the moment, But, as he admitted to me over some shrimp cocktail, it wasn’t a well thought out plan. Just part, he tells me, of a much bigger plan from a much higher power. It brought him to Wheeler Mission.
Ryan is one of the 30 men I met during our dinner. He’s past the 9-month mark of Wheeler Mission’s Addiction Recovery Discipleship program, and now works as Service Leadership trainer- still finding a salvation for himself, while assisting those seeking the same light that guided him through the darkness.
They are men from all walks, I learned. A former restaurant magnate who was swept into a lifestyle too fast. A former high school football star whose injury led to pain killers. A veteran from Florida who learned of the program from a family friend. A bartender from Cincinnati who felt he had nowhere to turn. All came to Wheeler Mission. Some found their way to the emergency shelter to escape the bitter cold. Some came at the plea of their families, who themselves felt exhausted of potential solutions. All began with the Mission’s four to six week addiction orientation program. They come from a multitude of backgrounds, but learn the same scripture: The addiction they battle was filling a void they previously ignored. Through scripture, they seek the whole they perhaps never knew.
**** It was a wonderful evening. Many had tears in their eyes as they talked- not because of the pain of the stories they shared, they’ve learned there’s no shame in one’s faults- but, rather, from that shrimp cocktail. It stings the sinuses, you know? St. Elmo helped make it possible.
When I mentioned the idea, the great folks at Elmo were as excited as I when I used to tiptoe next to the hot dog cart. I told them of my gift cards accumulated from WISH-TV8. Let’s be honest- it’s their money for the most part. Yet, when I asked how much food they could prepare with the cards I had, their response blew me away. “We’ll match you dollar for dollar.”
I called my friend Steve Kerr at Wheeler Mission. And I called my Mom. We had enough food to provide not only a private dinner for 30 deserving men in the Transitional Services Program, but also for an additional 200 in the emergency shelter. It’s perhaps the greatest Christmas gift I’ve ever received.
**** Ryan Little doesn’t remember last year’s Christmas. “Slept all day, I assume,” he tells me. It was just weeks before his rock bottom. Now, 11 months later, he finds himself in position to return working on those wind farms. Doing what he can to oil and massage those blades to turn 360 degrees.
That will have to wait. Instead, he’s staying to help other men turn a full 180.
And, in doing so, earning himself a new half friend. After all, this time it was my turn to just sit and listen.`