Magic Host Thanksgiving Breakfast for the Homeless

By John Denton
November 24, 2011

ORLANDO -- When Nelson Ortiz suffered a back injury that left him unable to work at his job constructing events at the Orange County Convention Center, it sent his life into a spiral.

He lost his job, then his vehicle and finally the apartment where he was living in Claremont. As a single parent, his worst fears were that his homelessness and despair could result in him having to give up his son, 4-year-old Nelson Ortiz Jr.

But on Thursday, just after he ate a hot breakfast provided by the Orlando Magic, Ortiz called the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida ``a life saver.’’ Not only has he been able to keep his young son safe, but the center has provided Ortiz shelter for the past six weeks, while also helping him get back on the road to recovery. The Coalition provided Ortiz with vouchers to pay for him to get his Commercial Driver’s License with which he’s been able to line up work and provide for him and his son.

``It’s unbelievable what this place has meant to me,’’ Otiz said. ``I had an accident and lost my job, so I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to turn. I went to a Claremont facility and they accepted single males, but not male parents. The Coalition for the Homeless was the only place that accepted male parents. They have meant so much to me. Without them I would be in a bad, bad way. God knows what would have happened and I might have lost my son.’’

Ortiz and his son and approximately 700 men, women and children were able to enjoy a Thanksgiving breakfast of eggs, bacon, grits and cinnamon rolls Thursday morning. The meals were provided by the Magic, which have been partners with the Coalition for the Homeless for two decades and have been serving underprivileged families on Thanksgiving morning for the last 19 years.

The Magic also sponsored a carnival with games, face painting and prizes for the children staying at the shelter. Giving back to those in need every Thanksgiving has been a Magic tradition that team president Alex Martins is most proud of.

``This stands out because it’s our longest-standing event that we do giving back to the community on an annual basis. It’s become a tradition for us here with the Magic. We’ve built an entire program based off this event,’’ Martins said. ``Our staff is so great at volunteering their time. They want to give back to the community and last year alone they gave more than 6,000 hours of their time giving to various organizations.’’

The Magic had approximately 100 staff members on hand Thursday morning to make sure that the adults and families were well taken care of. Head coach Stan Van Gundy, the sponsor for the meals, had his wife, Kim, and daughters, Shannon, Allison and Kelly, with him as he dished out eggs onto plates. Magic President of Basketball Operations/GM Otis Smith readied cups for juice and milk, while Martins passed out buttered biscuits for the meals.

``For all of the blessings that we have for all of us associated with professional sports, to just be able to make one morning a little nicer for someone feels good,’’ Van Gundy said. ``It’s just a great way to start your Thanksgiving Day, to be able to put it into perspective how blessed we all are. We have a tendency to complain about things that just aren’t that important and this puts life back into perspective.’’

Added Smith: ``This is just such a good opportunity to give back. There are so many people out here in our community who don’t have a lot or enough to eat because the economy has hurt so many people. We just have to help these people however we can. … The Magic have done a lot of things in our community, but this is one that always sticks because we help so many people. Through all of the changes in coaches and management this is one of the events that the Magic have always done through the year and I think it’s awesome because it helps a lot of people out who really need it.’’

Some of those people who were delighted to get Thursday morning’s meal were Amber Burkhart and Denise Dundel Verzyl. Burkhart is due on Friday to give birth to a boy, who will be named Michael. Burkhart raved about the Magic’s willingness to give back to those in need and bring smiles to people’s faces on Thanksgiving.

``This is amazing. We don’t usually get fed like this, so this is really good to have a good breakfast on Thanksgiving,’’ Burkhart said. ``It’s a blessing to have people care for us. And for all of us to be able to sit down together, everybody is getting along and there’s no hatred and it’s all happiness. It gives families a chance to have something today.

Dundel Verzyl, who was accompanied by her 13-year-old daughter Brooke, said her family has fallen on hard times of late after her husband lost his landscaping job. She had been living out of her car while also paying $300 a week at a local Comfort Inn and keeping her belongings in three storage units. She said the Coalition for the Homeless helped provide some stability in her life while she seeks employment to get life back on track for her and her daughter.

``The shelter has helped me feel like I wasn’t going to absolutely lose my mind this year,’’ Dundel Verzyl said. ``I’ve been able to make a lot of contacts here at the shelter and meet a lot of nice people. The face of homelessness is people living in hotels and shelters. And it’s not just single people; it’s a lot of families.’’

No one understands that more than Ortiz, who walked hand-in-hand with Nelson Jr. Thursday morning. He said going from being a hard-working citizen with a job to being homeless was a difficult transition that he struggled to come to grips with. But he said through help provided by the Coalition and events such as the one put on Thanksgiving morning by the Magic that there is hope again in his life for himself and son, Nelson Jr.

``A lot of these people here at the shelter are professional people who do good work and they are in a tough position. I never thought I’d be in a place like this, and it was really hard for me to accept it at first. I was in denial, but reality hits you hard sometimes,’’ Ortiz said. ``I had to stay here and I thought it was going to be something terrible, but on the contrary it has been so great for me and my son.

``If it was just up to me, I could get by myself. But my son is 4 years old and to be able to bring him to a safe environment like this, it’s been great. Everybody looks out for the kids here,’’ Ortiz continued. ``And it’s amazing how people like the Magic give to the Center and give back to the community. We know the significance of this and the meaning of helping others on Thanksgiving, so to me the Magic are a blessing from God.’’