Udonis Haslem’s message was heard loud and clear.
In a post published by The Players’ Tribune on Wednesday, the longtime Heat forward and Miami native shined a light on a vulnerable population that he felt had gone overlooked amid the coronavirus crisis: Children in families living below the poverty line.
Haslem, 39, wrote: “While I might not be a doctor or a congressman or anything like that, I do know one thing — just as someone who grew up where I grew up: If our schools have to close down for a long time because this corona thing gets out of control, millions of kids are going home to empty refrigerators. The worse this pandemic gets, the worse it’s going to be for those kids.
“I don’t know how I can get everyone to listen, but I say this from the bottom of my heart: The people growing up in the real Miami? They’re as vulnerable during this crisis as anybody.”
Just hours later in a City of Miami Commission meeting Wednesday night, Commissioner Ken Russell brought up Haslem’s message and called for action to help feed children in need during the pandemic.
“As a city commission, we’ve been dealing with inner city issues, the community redevelopment agencies for a long time,” Russell said. “But since the COVID-19 crisis came about, we’ve been so caught up in the testing situation, in health and safety, quarantine, lockdown, curfews and everything. We actually hadn’t been dealing with these issues until I read Udonis’ article, and it really made me realize that this is a vulnerable population always and even more so during a crisis, and nobody is talking about it.”
By the end of Wednesday’s commission meeting, there was a commitment to allocate $1 million to feed children in need around the city. The plan is for the program to target children within families that have lost a job during the coronavirus shutdown to help “make the money go a little further and get to those in most need.”
The hope is the first meal will be delivered to a family within the next week, as Russell and others work to finalize the logistics of sourcing the food, as well as preparation and distribution. On a conference call with reporters Friday, Haslem said “it meant a lot” to have the City of Miami take immediate action.
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“For me, I didn’t know it was going to go that far,” Haslem said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen that fast. But I was hoping to make an impact with my words. Commissioner Russell stepped up and they stepped up fast, and we made an impact really, really quickly. I was thankful for that. We had never met, so to know that my words moved him to make the impact and the move that he made so quickly, I’m thankful I have this platform.”
For now, only families in the City of Miami will be eligible for the program. But Russell said he’s looking for corporate partners and donors, with hopes of eventually expanding the effort to other cities in South Florida.
One person who will be actively involved throughout the process is Haslem.
“He wants to be involved in any way possible and we have started speaking about what this program could become,” Russell said of Haslem. “It could be a model for other cities, not just in this moment but in any moment of crisis that cities create a template for making sure there’s a safety net for kids in regards to hunger.
“Udonis had mostly advice on when [the food] is necessary, where kids are on a given day when they’re not in school and how to reach them and what sort of meals and that kind of thing. And he spoke a lot about his experience growing up and what it meant to have food available and what it meant when you don’t. So he’s definitely going to be very involved in the program.”
What pushed Haslem to deliver the message that began all of this?
“For the most part, just having so much free time and actually paying attention to a lot of things that are going on,” Haslem said. “I get so consumed and we all get so consumed with our everyday routine. You get up in the morning, you brush your teeth, you wash your face, you go to work, you come home, you’re with your family, you go to bed and you get up and do it all over gain. That’s your life.
“But with this time that I’ve had, I’ve just seen so much going on around the world. I’ve never really seen the whole world stricken by one thing and that has taken everybody to this point. I’ve been seeing a lot of people not taking it seriously. On the other hand, I’ve been talking to my family friend that’s living in the inner city and living in poverty. It’s frustrating to watch.”
So, Haslem made his voice heard and the city listened.
“Udonis has made an impact strong enough that a municipality was taking immediate action,” Russell said, “and in a significant way.”
Haslem insists he has no interest in entering politics when his playing career comes to an end. Instead, he’ll continue to find other ways to help the community.
“No way, no how. No, sir. I do not want to be a part of politics at all,” Haslem said. “I’m a person that’s driven off my heart. A lot of times when you’re dealing with politics, you have to take your heart out of it. That’s not who I am.”
Here’s what else Haslem touched on during his Friday conference call with reporters ...
▪ Haslem, who is in his 17th NBA season, said it has come to mind that the Heat’s March 11 game against the Hornets might have been his final NBA game if the season is completely lost. Haslem has yet to definitively declare this as his final NBA season.
“Obviously, it comes to mind,” he said. “For me, I’m still optimistic hoping that we can salvage some of the basketball season. So I haven’t gotten to that point mentally yet. In the midst of all this, there’s a lot going on. I’m focused on a lot of different things right now that’s kind of keeping me occupied as far as not really thinking about what’s going to happen as far as my last basketball game.”
▪ As far as staying in shape with NBA facilities closed to players and staff, Haslem said he has turned to “family workouts” at his house.
“We go out back in the yard,” he said. “We get pool workouts, band workouts, core workouts. We get the whole family to work out. Then we go upstairs and I have a semi weight room and we get a little workout upstairs. We actually have trainers coming to the house. We’re staying indoors and staying quarantined and still getting our work.”
▪ When asked about the possibility of resuming the season with no fans in arenas, Haslem indicated players would be more understanding of the idea than they were just a few weeks ago.
“I think at first, it sounded like a crazy idea,” Haslem said. “... I think all players will probably rethink the way they felt about it when they initially heard the idea of it.”