NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The note came from a mother in Minnesota.
Her twins, for their sixth-birthday celebration, instead of gifts, asked friends to donate soccer balls to the Kick for Nick Foundation, which sends them to children around the world whereever U.S. troops are stationed.
“She wrote this letter and said it was the proudest moment of her life that her kids at that age were thinking like this,” said Bill Madaras, tearing up as he talked about the family foundation set up in memory of their son.
Nick Madaras, an outstanding soccer player at his high school in Wilton, saw children in Iraq playing the game with makeshift equipment, often just a tin can.
He gathered up some soccer balls when he was home on leave to distribute them to the kids near his base in 2006, but the 19-year-old was killed by a roadside bomb before he could make that happen.
Almost 40,000 soccer balls later, with contributions coming in from 46 states and more than 500 cities, the Kick for Nick effort is going strong.
“Nick wanted to give the balls to the children he saw, that’s how we got started. But it very quickly became obvious with our communication with the military that it was serving a very definite purpose for the soliders themselves. It helped their morale and actually the balls were improving security in the villages,” Madaras said.
For Madaras and his wife, Shalini, the foundation became a platform for getting involved in helping veterans anyway they can.
The third annual Kick for Nick night fundraiser will be held Friday at O’Toole’s Pub, 157 Orange St., from 5 to 9 p.m. O’Toole’s has sponsored numerous fundraisers for the community, but especially around veterans given that its building was once an Army recruiting station.
Shalini Madaras said the event at O’Toole’s will also benefit Habitat for Heroes, a startup run by Habitat for Humanity in Fairfield County, that will construct the first home specifically for a veteran.
Bill Madaras said they want to raise awareness about new programs oriented toward veterans.
“It’s part of our mission to help,” said Shalini.
Habitat for Heroes is based on Habitat’s traditional model where the recipients offer sweat equity as their contribution and help others as the program expands. Shalini said home ownership is a confidence builder for veterans who may find it difficult to access a mortgage through traditional sources or can’t find housing they can afford.
After starting Kick for Nick, Shalini said they thought the effort would die down after a few years, but people won’t let it.
“Everybody wants to keep this thing going and they have taken ownership of it almost. It is really wonderful to see how important Nick’s spirit of sharing and giving and spreading hope to so many people has taken hold, not just in Connecticut, but nationally,” she said.
She said they have gotten contributions from five-year-olds to a 95-year-old man. A prison inmate sent some money through his attorney. A college student organizes soccer tournaments for sororities at Texas Tech University every year and sends the registration fees to the foundation.
Shalini said she took a trip to India this summer with the couple’s youngest child, Christopher, 17, and donated soccer balls and jerseys to an orphanage run by Catholic nuns.
She said it was extremely hot, but the boys put on their new outfits and started playing barefooted on the rough dirt.
“Chris said there was no way he was going to wear his shoes and the poor guy’s feet were totally ripped up, but I can’t tell you how happy those kids were and he was part of that,” Shalini said. “Just for those moments it brings back the childhood that has been robbed from them,” she said.
Bill said when personnel they have gotten to know at the U.S. consulates move to another assignment, they will often ask to continue the soccer program in their new country.
The couple are also helping a military base in Germany where a soccer club was established to help boost low morale among the soldiers.
Bill Madaras said soccer team members from the University of New Hampshire, after a game in Hartford, bought down duffle bags with uniforms, cleats and balls for a complete team in a donation to Kick for Nick.
“It just comes. They happen to come on a timely basis. We need something, suddenly it shows up, but that’s Nick taking care of his program. We have any event to do with Nick, I’ll tell you right now it will be good weather. He takes care of the weather every time,” Madaras said of his son.
Separate from the Habitat effort, Shalini is the now chairwoman of the board of Homes for the Brave, which has been in existence for 10 years with transitional housing for homeless male veterans.
Shalini, after she came onboard, helped organize fundraising to establish the PFC Nicholas A. Madaras Home in Bridgeport for homeless female veterans as they transition back to civilian life. They can stay there for up to two years as they pursue job training, education and re-establish some financial security. She said 33 women have successfully gone through the programs and moved on.
The couple said they are grateful for the continuing contributions made by O’Toole’s Pub and Michael McCann, who despite fighting stage 4 pancreatic cancer, organized the fundraising event.
“I think it is such a great thing that they are so socially responsible and conscious of supporting organizations that are so badly needed,” she said. ‘Our program has a kind of energy on its own. People like Mike and O’Toole’s they just keep firing up that energy and it just makes everyone feel so good about doing this.”
“We’ve gotten a positive response, especially from veteran and soccer organizations and the Irish community. The Irish are passionate about the sport,” said Colin O’Toole, the pub’s owner/manager, about Kick For Nick.
The event is also being supported by O’Toole’s Band of Brothers, a group of veterans including those who had enlisted there when the building served as a recruiting center. The group’s most active members are from the Southern Connecticut State University Vets Club who promote and work at the pubs veteran’s fundraisers. In May they helped the pub raise $17,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project with an on-campus fundraiser of their own. The area’s military recruiters will attend and work the event.
The fundraiser will include hors d’oeuvres, drink specials, prize drawings, silent auction and a performance by the Connecticut Firefighters Pipes and Drums. Admission will be a tax deductible contribution of $15, or a new or used soccer ball.