THE ICE(WO)MAN COMETH
Last Friday night at the Tampa Bay Times Forum (aka “the ice palace”), the Lightning organization honored one of my own employees as their shining star for one night and a hero for the season. Sheila Lopez is in every way the “mother” of Pinellas Hope, admired, loved and sometimes feared by the residents of the homeless shelter. Involved from the first shovel of dirt turned, Sheila has directed Pinellas Hope from the very beginning. Every major politician in Pinellas county has met her at some time as she and her boss, Catholic Charities president Frank Murphy, annually appeal for funding for the project and many philanthropies know her as well for the same reason. She is indomitable and unsinkable! The Lightning’s new owner, Jeff Vinik, decided last summer that he would establish and fund a foundation which would seek out charitable works and the people behind them and honor them at home games throughout the season. But the honor is more than a moment on the ice, it is accompanied by a check for fifty-thousand ($50,000) for the charity being honored. Sheila’s check was presented to her just prior to face off by her hero, Marty St. Louis. Additionally the owner himself came and spent a good deal of time with her prior to the presentation of the check by Number 26. During the second television time out, a two minute video about Pinellas Hope and Sheila was presented on the jumbotron and everyone in the forum at its conclusion cheered, clapped, whistled and saluted our heroine.
I am not allowed to divulge Sheila’s exact age (she is one year older than I and I am 71 in May), but it is inconsequential. She dedicates almost every waking moment to Pinellas Hope. She loves the clients and leaned on the Lightning organization to allow her to bring at the Lightning’s expense fifty of her most dedicated residents whose work at the site is above and beyond the minimum expected. They were treated to hot dogs and soda in a private room prior to the game’s start and all the soft drinks they could consume. Alcoholic beverages are forbidden to Pinellas Hope residents and Miss Sheila kept a careful watch. Any violator would have had to walk back from Tampa to Pinellas Park, I was told. The energy of the woman is incredible. I held my breath that she would not ask the Lightning to allow her to put on skates and play during one line (she claims to have played competitive ice hockey as a young girl in Hershey). Her “babies” sitting in section 318 were especially noisy during the public recognition of Sheila’s work.
I was asked as I always am about when we would replicate Pinellas Hope in Hillsborough county. Fifty-four per cent of the residents of Pinellas Hope do leave for independent living (admittedly it is not easy to trace what happens to them long after they leave the facility). That is one of the best numbers in the state. Additionally we now have permission to build about a dozen more small apartments on the site for those who are transitioning from tents to their own homes, apartments, whatever after leaving Pinellas Hope with a job. Sheila has been at it five years in Pinellas Park and she readily concedes that the type of resident we have now is significantly different from those we started with. Now we are caring for the lower middle class and working class residents who have lost their jobs and homes as a result of the economy. The desperation is just as great if not greater with this new generation of homeless.
So, Sheila Lopez for one brief moment was a worthy hero for the Lightning and for five years has been the same for myself, Catholic Charities for which she is an assistant director, and well over two thousand residents, transients, and volunteers at Pinellas Hope. Her smile last Friday night lit up the Forum and I can not thank the Lightning organization enough for a very classy occasion to honor an employee whom I admire deeply, on the ice and in the mud of Pinellas Hope. Go Bolts!