'Not all about the game' | Bills players award five $50K grants to support non-profits

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This season, the NFL will use Week 18 to collectively highlight the commitment to Inspire Change - its year-round social justice initiative. As part of our Inspire Change game day celebration, the Buffalo Bills will recognize and support the great work of five local nonprofits working to support our youth through mentoring, education, and bridging the digital divide.

The organizations, Say Yes Buffalo, Buffalo Peacemakers, Buffalo Center for Arts & Technology, Buffalo Prep, and The Belle Center will each receive a $50,000 Buffalo Bills Social Justice Fund grant. They will be recognized in a pre-game, on-field ceremony as part of the Bills Inspire Change Game on Sunday, January 9.

These non-profit organizations have been carefully selected by the Bills' Player Community Leadership Committee. The players in the committee are Dion Dawkins, Tremaine Edmunds, Jerry Hughes, Micah Hyde, and Harrison Phillips. They are all involved and engaged in various initiatives throughout the year.

Being on this committee is so important to these players because they can use their platform to make a huge impact in these kids' lives who need it the most.

"Honestly, that's where my heart is," Dawkins said. "I'm an over-carer. Sometimes, I might even say that I care too much. I just try to be as pure as possible, and the people of the community seem to relate to me. And because I feel like that it's an easier transition of connection that comes from the players to the community."

"… Working with our team that we have in place here, our whole community relations staff and this social justice committee, group," Phillips added. "We've been able to do a lot of great work here in Western New York. It really is inspiring, being someone in this position of an NFL football player, there's a lot of eyes on you. We want to make sure that we're directing those eyes to others."

It was important to the leadership committee that the grant money was put toward the youth in the Buffalo community. The achievement gap starts so young with reading and writing and once a child falls behind, it's hard for them to catch up without extra assistance. These programs will provide that assistance and help bridge that gap.

Say Yes Buffalo will support the purchase of laptops for young students and the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology help close the digital divide for high school students throughout the City of Buffalo. They will build digital expertise and entrepreneurial skills through the lens of addressing community issues.

"Our world is becoming an electronic world," Dawkins said. "So, for the people to not have that as a tool in their tool book, it's really just not fair. So, we just try to make everything as fair as possible. And like I said if we have the resources to help bless people and connect that divide too, let's just do it."

Along with providing technology, some of the other programs will help with mentorship and educational equity. Buffalo Peacemakers provides mentorship programs for at-risk youth and assists students to lead healthy and productive lives in the face of personal trauma and the continuing challenges of poverty and discrimination. The grant money will help Buffalo Prep fund three new programs: Scholar Success, YEA - Youth Equity Academy, and READI – Realizing Equity, Access, Diversity, and Inclusion. These programs will provide crucial support to their students and promote racial and educational equity throughout the WNY region.

For the leadership committee, it was finding where they could make the biggest difference in these kids' lives and giving them the resources to make positive change. They are happy if they can make an influence in just one child's life, but with these grants, they know they are doing a lot more than that.

"For the younger people that grow up thinking, 'Man, I don't have the resources, I don't have the chance that some of these other people have,'" Dawkins shared. "And then you have a great organization like ours that can come in and be a blessing to these small programs, it's extremely impactful. The little things go the miles, and they change people's lives for the better. Anytime you could jump in and make somebody's situation better, why not? And if we're blessed enough to do so, let's keep doing it."

Another one of the grant recipients, The Belle Center, is a multi-purpose community center that hosts over 15 programs and services. The grant will help support STEM experiences for children grades K-12. It will also go to support their Latino Task Force which will help increase graduation rates among the Latino community.

Lucy Candelario has been the executive director of the Belle Center for the past nine years. She feels that in the Buffalo community that there are a lot of inequities with education and technology. She knows that with this grant money, they will be able to provide a brighter future for these kids' lives.

"I am absolutely ecstatic with the Buffalo Bills and the player leadership committee," Candelario said. "I'm almost lost for words. They're so generous with not only with their funding but with their time that they give the community so I'm very, very happy and very grateful."

Along with the STEM programs that they will be able to provide, they will be starting a pilot project at Lafayette High School to help incoming freshmen bridge the gap and ensure they graduate on time. There is a major focus on the Latino community because they have one of the lowest graduation rates in the city. Their goal is to provide tools to these kids to help them graduate on time and graduate period.

Candelario loves the Bills' Inspire Change initiative and what the team is doing for the community. She appreciates that the Bills' organization is doing more than throwing money at a problem but paying attention to what the needs of the community are and addressing those problems head-on.

"This shows, it's not all about the game," Candelario said. "It's beautiful that we have a winning team and that we have players that love the game, but when they give back to the community, and the way they give back, it's it speaks volumes. It's so heartfelt. You get to meet the players, you get to talk to them, they get to know what you're about. … It shows the character of the organization and the character of the people involved. The willingness to roll up their sleeves and give back in whatever capacity they can. They talk about Buffalo being the city of good neighbors, and I think the Buffalo Bills are probably the icing on the cake when it comes to that phrase."

For the Bills, their Inspire Change initiatives haven't started this year. Last season, the team gave over $500,000 to the Buffalo Public Schools to provide over 4,500 students with technology and internet access to complete their schoolwork. The Bills organization has also been recognizing a local organization with the Inspire Change Organization of the Game Award at each home game. This program has been honoring and supporting local organizations since October 2017.

The Bills' players are glad that the NFL is using Week 18 to recognize the work they are doing to better the Buffalo community because it will bring more awareness to the issues they are trying to fix.

"I think it's extremely important for the NFL to put that foot forward supporting all the things that we already as players we agree with," Phillips stated. "I think it's extremely important that the NFL supports what the players' passions are. A lot of the time with player leadership, we get to choose where this money goes to. And the fact that they also match, and the owners contribute, definitely helps a lot of children."

Scroll to see photos of the Bills as they prepare for their Week 18 game against the New York Jets.

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