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Former Falcon to chair Hi-Hope fundraising event

Staff Photo: John Bohn Former Atlanta Falcons player Chuck Smith, left, greets Jonathan Daniels, 34, of Dacula, at Hi-Hope in Lawrenceville Wednesday. Smith is chairing the upcoming Hi-Hope gala, will also work to provide Daniels with access to a Falcons practice in the near future.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Former Atlanta Falcons player Chuck Smith, left, greets Jonathan Daniels, 34, of Dacula, at Hi-Hope in Lawrenceville Wednesday. Smith is chairing the upcoming Hi-Hope gala, will also work to provide Daniels with access to a Falcons practice in the near future.

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.Staff Photo: John Bohn Former Atlanta Falcons player Chuck Smith, left, gives advice on handling a football to Shaun Kanner, of Snellville, at Hi-Hope in Lawrenceville Wednesday. Smith is chairing the upcoming Hi-Hope gala.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- When Chuck Smith saw Shaun throwing the pigskin as he waited to go home from a day at the Hi-Hope Center, he couldn't help but lend a few tips.

The former Falcon defensive end who helped lead the team to the Super Bowl in 1998 talked to his new friend about catching a football. But more than that, he said, football, like life, is about vision.

"Vision is everything," Smith said to Shaun, a developmentally disabled man who spends his days at the Lawrenceville center.

It is that outlook on life that now has Smith, who lives in Suwanee, spending his time volunteering in the community, including recently taking on a lead as honorary chair of Hi-Hope's annual gala.

After a tour of the facility Wednesday, Smith started generating more ideas, including helping one fan connect to the team and talking about the issue on V103, where he formerly worked as a broadcaster.

"I have a lot of respect for what you guys do," Smith said, talking about his own experiences with his youngest son, who has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum. "I have learned that with therapy you can help people become functional in society. It made it a little more passionate for me."

Smith said he realized a long time ago how his athleticism has made him a role model, so he wants to use that blessing to direct people's attentions to ways they can help special causes.

"They deserve to have common respect and opportunities," he said, "and they need funding."

According to Yvonne Whitaker of Hi-Hope, the funding for the 50-year-old center has taken a turn in the past few years of recession.

"The state and federal government is cutting and cutting and cutting," she said. "But it's unfortunate when you hit these people because they don't have a lot of other avenues to go to."

Angie Garland, a volunteer for the center who has a brother with special needs, introduced Smith to the center when the two sat in the stands watching his son and her grandson play football.

"He's a very generous person," Garland said, adding how excited the center is to have a famous athlete bring some attention to the cause.

On Wednesday, word circulated through the center that a football player was there, but even more, many of the clients simply wanted to meet a new person who took interest in helping them, Whitaker said.

For 34-year-old Jonathan, the day was especially excited. The disabled man didn't say much, but he kept waving his hands in excitement after he greeted Smith and learned that the former Falcon would work with the team to set up a time for him to go to training camp and interact with the players.

"He's a fan. He's a person who has high hopes, so we can find an opportunity," Smith said.

When talk turned to last week's season-ending game, Smith said Jonathan could be the inspiration the Dirty Birds need next year. "Maybe next year Jonathan would be the winning ingredient," he said, drawing a smile from the shy man.

With a theme of "A Night in Las Vegas" and a $100,000 goal, Hi-Hope's cocktail affair will be held from 7 to 11 p.m. March 17 at the 1818 Club in Duluth. The event features and silent and live auction as well as Vegas style entertainment.

Tickets are $125 a person, and seating is limited. For more information, sponsor the event or buy tickets, contact Whitaker at 770-963-8694, ext. 12.