- Tom Archdeacon columnist
The Frericks Center has been home to some big-gasp moments over the years.
Long ago — when the place was known as the UD Fieldhouse — some of the Dayton Flyers’ most stirring basketball victories happened there.
These days the court hosts the perennially-powerful UD women’s volleyball team.
Yet over the decades there have been few moments filled with more surprise, more warmth, more youthful glee than the one that played out there eight mornings ago at what was called a “Day to Dream.”
Fifty kids in need, selected by various social agencies and schools, were brought with their families to the storied building on the University of Dayton campus for a hidden “gift” that would impact their lives.
The event — a collaboration between the charity Secret Smiles of Dayton, Morris Furniture Company and the United Way — began with a breakfast provided by Chick-fil-A, which also brought along its cow mascots to dance with the kids and build the celebratory mood.
Then everyone took a seat on one side of a big curtain that stretched across the floor of the old arena. A countdown began and when the curtain was pulled back, there were rows of brand new beds made up with crisp sheets, comforters, fluffy pillows and pillow cases that bore the Secret Smiles’ mantra “Dream Big.”
Atop each bed was also a stuffed animal and some story books, everything that helps a child get a good, comfortable night’s sleep.
That’s something none of these children had been assured of and why there were squeals of delight and cheers and even some parents’ tears as the kids ran to the beds, looking for the one that bore their nametag.
Tracy Janess, president of Secret Smiles, said several years ago her organization was stunned to discover the number of children in the Dayton-area who had no beds and slept instead on the floor, on a couch or maybe in a chair.
There were a multitude of reasons: poverty, abuse, homelessness or just simply hard times and bad luck.
“By lifting a child off the floor into a warm, cozy bed, we hope to lift their spirits and restore some dignity as well as put a smile on their face as they fall asleep at night,” is the way the Secret Smiles mission statement puts it.
As Tracy watched the scene unfold at the Frericks Center, she knew two things were happening:
The collaborative effort was helping uplift children and their families.
And she was keeping alive the legacy of her late sister, Kristy.
A UD grad like Tracy and the inspiration for the Secret Smiles effort in Dayton, Kristry Irvine Ryan was 30 and newly married when she was killed in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Some three years before that, Kristy and her friend Meredith O’Neill Hassett had begun a good deeds effort for school kids and their families in Harlem, where Meredith taught at P.S, 154.
They were expanding that effort when Kristy was killed and her death left everyone — from her family in Huntington, Long Island and in Shelby County to her new husband and her old friends from UD — with a numbing sense of loss.
For Tracy, who lives in Kettering and was left reeling, there was an initial call to action to both help the people of New York and, in the process, try to heal some from the death of her younger sister.
She teamed up with other members of the Junior League of Dayton — the women’s group dedicated to volunteerism and charity issues — and they held a small fund-raiser and sent various household items to New Yorkers.
Eventually that effort would morph into the Secret Smiles of Dayton, which now so fully embraces children in the Miami Valley. To date the group has provided 6,000 new beds and bedding for local kids, including a record 1,000 beds in 2017 alone.
Not long after her sister was killed, Tracy — then with more hopefulness than concrete belief — told me: “No matter what happens, no matter how evil something is, I believe goodness will prevail.”
Since then, she’s seen goodness take many shapes:
• It’s there in the women who run Secret Smiles. They’re all moms and members of our community and unpaid volunteers trying to help others.
• She sees goodness in Larry Klaben, the president of Morris Furniture, and his employees and the way they have embraced the Secret Smiles effort.
Thanks to Klaben, the company — which also has made substantial monetary contributions as well as giving a percentage of all its bed sales to the charity — provides all the beds and cribs to Secret Smiles at cost and then delivers and sets them up for free.
• She saw it in former University of Dayton basketball coach Brian Gregory and his wife Yvette, who fully supported Secret Smiles in a number of ways. They opened their home for fund-raisers.
Yvette was a Secret Smiles board member and Brian led a silent auction at Flanagan’s Pub. He also helped initiate a donation challenge between Dayton and Xavier students at UD Arena.
And with no fanfare, he quietly delivered beds to people in need.
Today — although he left UD eight seasons ago and now is the head coach of the University of South Florida — Gregory and his wife still donate generously to Secret Smiles of Dayton and, when called on, Yvette still helps with online orders.
• And Tracy also sees the goodness in the way the recipients of the beds respond.
“After everyone left the Frericks Center the other day there was one family of children who stayed and helped clean up,” Tracy said. “They were so appreciative. Their stories might be sad, but their dreams are no different than yours and mine.
“Parents just want the best for their kids. They want a safe place for them to sleep. They want them to feel good about themselves.
“They want them to smile.”
Lessons from UD
The five Irvine sisters grew up on Long Island, but their mom, Toni, was from Sidney and every summer the girls visited their grandparents and cousins in Shelby County.
Their grandfather, Joseph “Chief” Wagner, had played football at UD and graduated from the school with an engineering degree. Tracy, her husband Brian Janess, Kristy and over a dozen other relatives all attended UD, too.
Tracy said the spirit of looking out for others was ingrained in her and her sister at UD:
“Kristy and I talked about that and decided we learned it best at UD. Being involved in your community and giving back is such a huge part of the school. Whether it’s Christmas on Campus or all the service clubs, it’s a big part of your education there.”
Kristy brought those lessons with her when she graduated and moved to Manhattan, where she took a job as an equities trader for Sandler O’Neill and Partners.
Meredith O’Neill Hassett — her friend since fourth grade and a UD grad — was teaching in Harlem and came to know a kindergarten boy and his mom who were living in a domestic violence shelter and had nothing.
After she was told the circumstances, Kristy and some friends went out just before Christmas and bought all kinds of household items, furniture, clothes and toys for the mother and her son. The gifts were delivered without them knowing where they came from — hence the concept of Secret Smiles — and an idea was born.
That was in 1998 and the idea began to grow over the next couple of years.
On Sept. 10, 2001, Kristy and Meredith had dinner at a Midtown Manhattan restaurant and talked about how good their lives were going and their coming plans for Secret Smiles.
The next morning terrorists rammed hijacked airliners into both of the World Trade Center towers, which caught on fire and eventually toppled.
Kristy’s office was on the 104th floor of the South Tower and she and 66 other Sandler O’Neill coworkers perished.
Here in Dayton, Tracy, with the help of some of her friends, started a grass-roots version of Secret Smiles. Eventually they found their true calling.
“We found that the No. 1 thing families didn’t have and couldn’t get from any of the social service agencies was beds,” Tracy said. “No one donates beds. People keep them forever and when they get rid of them, they’re falling apart. And, unfortunately, with the bed bug epidemic, a lot of places won’t accept beds anyway. So beds just don’t exist.”
At first, Secret Smiles — thanks to a few fund-raisers and money out of the pockets of the women who ran it — went out and bought beds and then delivered them. That’s what Brian Gregory did on many occasions.
It was a lot of work and limited their effort.
And then in 2004 — as the group was taking on 501 c (3) charity status — Secret Smiles approached Klaben and asked if Morris Furniture could help in some way, maybe in getting beds cheaper or delivery or something.
“He said, ‘Yeah, whatever you need,’ ” Tracy said. “We weren’t asking for a deal, but he gave one and a lot more. He gave us the world.”
With Morris Furniture providing beds at cost, delivering and setting them up free and even storing other bedding items for Secret Smiles that were bought elsewhere, the charity began to make a real communal impact.
This year Secret Smiles exceeded all its annual markers.
“We had gotten some nice donations last year and we decided to push ourselves to see how much we could do,” Tracy said. “We delivered 1,000 beds. Now we want to do it again next year and the year after.”
One of my favorite Christmas stories involving a local coach features Brian Gregory.
One December evening during the basketball season, he delivered beds to some of the poorest neighborhoods in Dayton. None of the people for whom he carried in the beds recognized him.
Then again who would have suspected a UD basketball coach — midseason — to shed the fancy suit he wears on the sidelines, don work clothes and become a blue collar laborer for people who had very little.
To those folks he was just a delivery man who brought them a bed … and a smile .
He didn’t make a big deal about it. He didn’t want any fanfare or publicity. He just did it to help his fellow man.
“He and Yvette really cared about our community,” Tracy said. “They still do.”
I once got a reluctant Gregory to talk about his efforts.
“The thing I’m excited about is that we’re making a difference right here in this community,” he said. “It’s something to see kids get excited about getting a bed and some bedding. And during all those deliveries, no one ever recognizes me. That’s the way I want it. This is about nothing more than helping somebody out”.
In return, Tracy said Secret Smiles wants just one thing from recipients:
“We just ask people to pay it forward.”
And she said that’s happening:
“We get heartfelt letters from families and from some of the kids we’ve helped. Some of them have gotten involved in the community themselves now.
“One woman some years back let us know that after our help, she had been able to get back into school and she was working and doing everything she was supposed to be doing. She told us how much Secret Smiles meant to her. It had been there when she most needed help with her kids.
“I’ve said it over and over, but when I hear these stories, when I meet these families, I look at them and see Kristy.”
And she sees goodness.