Chargers’ Weekly Tradition

Karen Hawley
August 13, 2009


One man’s simple statement has made a difference in many teen boys’ lives. Dick Lewis, director of security for the San Diego Chargers, was sitting in a meeting 10 years ago when Dean Spanos, President/CEO of the NFL team, encouraged staff to not waste anything–especially time.

“‘We need to help those who are less fortunate,'” Lewis recalls Spanos saying. Lewis and the Chargers’ outreach team ran with it.

Players from the NFL franchise, along with the team’s office staff, come down Thursday evenings to feed the hungry who have no place to call home. By 5:30 p.m., people are lined up around the block by the Salvation Army, waiting for the gates to open. Each hopes to be one of the first 100 to 150 who make the cut.

“Dick started it,” said Jeanne McAlister, founder of McAlister Institute, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for youth in El Cajon. “Don’t let him be humble about it either,” she said. The tradition began with bananas and water in an empty parking lot until the city kicked them out to build on the property across from Volunteers of America.

“We used to be in the pouring rain,” McAlister said. Those days there were more people, more kids. There were a lot of kids in the program.

Some of the players will come down Thursdays to help adolescents feed the hungry. “We’re fortunate to have the right people,” said Ed McGuire, Chargers assistant manager. “You don’t have to ask these guys for anything. They want to do it.” Even McGuire lends a hand. He’s come down a few times-recently with his family. “I’d like to do it as a family more often,” said his wife Jane.

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It’s the Institute’s philosophy that the best people to help teens stay clean are those who have been in similar situations. Tim Bowden, program administrator for McAlister, used to be a resident. “I saw her blue eyes and thought, ‘How can a white bitch like that keep me clean?,'” Bowden recalls. “I kept getting into trouble and she just kept taking me back. As an addict, my thought was like, ‘What do they want from me?,'” Bowden said. “I don’t know what she saw in me.”

McAlister admits she’s a recovering addict herself. Today, she’s “Mama Jeanne.” About 85 percent of the Institute staff are recovering users.

This belief in empathy over sympathy can be credited to McAlister’s predecessor, Tom Rusk, a psychiatrist and author of several books on the subject. Inevitably, McAlister would also inherit some of the challenges Rusk had to face, along with many of today’s obstacles–including funding a nonprofit, working with the county and the federal government to allow the hiring of someone with a record, and having to let some kids return to the environment that brought them to McAlister in the first place.

They’ve lost some kids. Bowden’s voice fades and his eyes drop when he shares the story of a boy who was shot in a drive-by shooting three days after leaving the facility.

During their stay, some have the privilege of spending time with an NFL football player. Kevin Burnett, No. 99 and a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, once took a group of six adolescents out bowling. None had bowled before.

Volunteering is almost as affecting. McAlister says it helps the adolescents realize how fortunate they are. After feeding the homeless, the Institute’s young charges–along with staff, players and other volunteers–spend time together in a circle talking about how to better their quality of life.

On one recent day some of the adolescents sat in the middle of the circle and took turns explaining how spending time with an NFL football player was the most fun they’d ever had sober. Then one of them announced a decision he’d just arrived at: He was going to join the Air Force so he could be a better father to his daughter.
The evening had started off with a lot of skepticism, but together they worked to learn the game.

***Gary Banks volunteering at Golden Paradise Senior Community, National City***

DICK LEWIS

They call him “the good doctor.” He calls everyone “big shot” or “big time.” Behind his back, though, they call the former police officer the man with the biggest heart.

How do you know Tim Bowden, program administrator for McAlister Institute?

“Jeanne McAlister has always been a friend of mine. When I was still a police officer, I used to take the players to schools so they could talk to students–before I was affiliated with the Chargers. I’ve always believed that drugs are a poison. Teens from McAlister Institute used to come into the office and gives talks to them about being constructive.”

You mentioned a meeting when Dean Spanos encouraged volunteering. You mark that as the moment he became your hero. Can you elaborate on that?

“We often have directors’ meetings. At one of those meetings he was talking about how he wanted to be all he could be to people. He was talking about folks wasting food and time. He said people out there are starving and we should go feed the homeless. He said there are a lot of elderly people out there and we should spend time with them. We ran with it.”

We hear the lines to feed the homeless used to be around the corner, but they’re shorter now. Why do you think that is?

“The Salvation Army can only accommodate 100 to 150 people. So maybe people don’t want to waste their time standing in line in case they’re turned away.”

How did you get to where you are today?

“One day many years ago Don Coryell, former San Diego Chargers coach, had a problem with security. I was a police officer at the time. He asked me to come with them one time. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’

“I feel a lot of folks have nothing and nobody. Somebody should be there for everybody. I love helping people.

“As a police officer working under Bill Kolender at Central, I was involved with community relations and spent time with the homeless downtown. He and Dean Spanos have always treated me like a human being.”

What’s your favorite song?

“‘Baby, baby’ by Smokey Robinson.” [It's the song he dedicates to some of his biggest fans.]

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