Wake Forest University students and baseball players Brad Kledzik and Charles Mellies have taken the phrase "charity begins at home" to heart, organizing a collection drive at their college to support injured veterans at Walter Reed Hospital.
Kledzik, a Robinson Secondary graduate, and Mellies, a Centreville High graduate, along with their fellow athletes, have raised nearly $5,000 in donations and corporate contributions for 50 care packages they will deliver to the military hospital on Monday, Dec. 3.
"Originally, we just talked about asking other members of the team to pitch in," said Kledzik, a junior communications major from Fairfax Station.
Encouraged by Fred Worth, director of baseball operations for the school, the two students approached their athletic director for permission to take the drive to all student athletes.
"They loved the idea," Kledzik said. "They even let us collect during the last home football game, and we raised about $3,500 that day alone."
"We thought it’d be a good idea, a good way for us to give back to these injured soldiers who are the same age as us," said Mellies, a senior from Clifton with a double major in political science and sociology.
Mellies was also inspired to help because of his family’s history of military service.
"My dad was in the Army for 11 years, my grandfather was in the Army too," he said. "Most of the men in my family have served and I have great admiration and respect for them."
Both students said they were impressed and grateful for the outpouring of support they have seen for the soldiers, demonstrated by donations of pocket change to $20 bills.
While asking their teammates, fellow athletes and football fans for support, the two players, who are also roommates, made sure to keep politics out of the picture.
"This has nothing to do with how you feel about the war, it’s about supporting these soldiers who are wounded and need help," Kledzik said.
ONE OF THEIR fellow athletes told Kledzik that a man who had served and was injured during the Vietnam War emptied his wallet into a collection bin, eyes filled with tears. He thanked the students for taking on the task of helping the soldiers.
"We were bombarded with people who wanted to talk to us about this," Kledzik said.
"We had no idea it’d get this big," Mellies said. "We originally just wanted to raise about $1,000, so this is great."
With the money collected, along with donations of under armor clothing from Dicks’ Sporting Goods and several other large donations from department stores near their college, Mellies, Kledzik and a handful of other students will present 50 packages to soldiers at Walter Reed on Monday, Dec. 3. The care packages will also include toiletries, handheld electronic games and, of course, Wake Forest T-shirts, caps and sweatpants.
Fred Worth said it was easy for the students to get others involved in the giving, knowing the soldiers who would receive their donations were most likely around 20 years old.
"I’m new to Wake Forest this year, and before I came here, everyone was telling me this place is one big family," Worth said. "I have to tell you, I’m really seeing it now. People keep calling my office asking how they can help. It’s fantastic."
Worth said he is considering offering a challenge to other schools in the same athletic conference to take on similar tasks in their own areas.
"There’s a place nearby that helps wounded soldiers in some way, why not do something to help them?" he asked.
Like the story told to Kledzik, Worth said another veteran approached him and thanked him for his efforts.
"This guy was a retired Army captain who shook my hand and said ‘what you’re doing makes what I did worthwhile’ and walked away," Worth said. "I had goose-bumps the size of quarters when he left."
WORKING ON this drive has put things in perspective for Worth, who said most people do forget the wounded soldiers at Walter Reed while dealing with everyday hassles, like holiday shopping, paying bills and being stuck in traffic.
"We forget there’s a kid that’s been hurt and a family sitting with him while he recovers," Worth said.
He is also proud of the athletes and the way they have conducted themselves while asking for donations.
"The guys I was with at the football game didn’t think twice about the people who didn’t give, but they embraced the heck out of the people who did," he chuckled.
That appreciation may be nothing compared to the response from the soldiers at Walter Reed, who are used to short visits by professional athletes or elected officials, said Javier Sanchez, director of government affairs with the Armed Forces Foundation at Walter Reed.
"This is the first time a group has scheduled a visit here when they’re not already in town for some reason," Sanchez said. "I don’t think we’ve ever had something like this from a college."
The soldiers have been told about the upcoming visit by Wake Forest students, Sanchez said, and they are looking forward to the chance to tell their stories.
"A visit like this from the average American, especially ones about the same age, it means the world to them," he said. "Everyone says they support the troops, but this is the real thing."
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), a Wake Forest alumnus, and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) will join the students when they arrive at the hospital, Sanchez said.
Knowing that students are working toward cheering up the soldiers is "humbling," he said.
"You come out feeling so good to know there are young people out there so committed to America," he said. "These wounded soldiers, all they want is to get better and get back out there to fight with their buddies."
Mellies said he hopes to join those soldiers one day, after he graduates from law school, to carry on his family tradition.
"Hopefully, we’ll inspire other people in Northern Virginia to volunteer their time and visit the soldiers too, or take on some project for Walter Reed," he said.