At the end of February 2008, Don Garber officially announced that Major League Soccer would be expanding to Philadelphia in the 2010 season. It was the long-awaited result of years upon years of work by a group of people who just truly love the city and the sport.
Aptly named Sons of Ben, the 2016 documentary on this supporters group, which uniquely predates the team it was formed to support, follows this arduous process from concept to conception. But perhaps the most interesting thing that was born out of the Philadelphia Union’s successful expansion bid was not the team itself but rather the promise that came along with Chester, Pennsylvania being named its home: as Nick Sakiewicz of Keystone Sports & Entertainment put it at the 2008 announcement, “This is about more than just a soccer team. This is about opportunity for the people of Chester.”
Plans were made for condos, for retail space alongside the new stadium plans — right before the 2008 stock market crash and subsequent recession. But even when they were able to move forward with stadium construction when the markets picked back up a few months later, Sons of Ben notes that the larger Chester rejuvenation efforts were put on hold — and still are.
“Promises are made to be broken,” Chester resident Lamont Wheeler says, completely unsurprised, in the documentary.
And knowing this, Sons of Ben have done all that’s in their power to help. Years since the team’s founding — and on since the documentary cameras stopped rolling — Chester-based philanthropy has remained a core principle for the Sons of Ben and their relationship to the community has only gotten stronger.
“From the start, we worked really closely with the Bernardine Center [a food pantry in Chester],” says Brad Youtz, a former Sons of Ben philanthropy director. Their main effort for the Center is ‘Help Kick Hunger,’ a huge once-a-year food drive proposed by Sons of Ben co-founder Bryan James based on the success he and his fraternity, Lambda Chi, had with their food drives back in college. James reached out to Mayor Butler in order to find a pantry that was near the stadium site, and the rest is history.
“The first year, we struggled to raise the money donation,” says James. “But now, on average, we get $10,000 and 10,000 pounds of food every year. If you believe in something…then other people will come along for the ride. ‘Help Kick Hunger’ is one of those things.”
“‘Help Kick Hunger’ always has been and still is and definitely will be our biggest philanthropic effort,” says Bill Gusler, former Sons of Ben philanthropy director and current president. But it has grown immensely from that first year, not just in money and food raised but in goals and broader impact on the community.
What started as a food drive grew into a sort of “end of season celebration as well as fundraiser and food drive,” Gusler explains; on top of the usual canned goods donations, Help Kicks Hunger now includes a huge raffle and a silent auction, some of which items get donated by the Union itself.
Local businesses has also gotten much more involved, bringing all of Sons of Ben’s aims together under one roof. Gusler connected with Ken Silver of the famous Jim’s Steaks on South Street, who went from wanting to donate a couple of gift cards to making a much larger donation and presenting the check. The next year, Silver made an even bigger donation — and then another year, an auction item was getting lunch with a Union player at the restaurant.
Gusler seemed not at all surprised by this turn of events. “Just kind of a reputation of what we do, we have local businesses that want to partner with us and help us out.”
Beyond Help Kicks Hunger, Sons of Ben began sustaining their relationship with the Bernardine Center year-round by donating leftover tailgate food, from the burgers to the potato salad, since about three seasons ago.
Even more, from where they get this tailgate food has just this year itself turned into another community-based effort. Gusler explains that Chester was a “Food Desert”; as the documentary shows, the city went without a grocery store for 12 years until one opened in 2013. And now that they have one, not to mention one that is one of the first non-profit supermarkets in the country that feeds mostly residents who live below the poverty line, Sons of Ben wanted to get involved and do what they could do help it thrive: by trying to get the majority of their tailgate food from there.
Gusler adds, “Maybe we’ll even go to grab hoagies for away trips.”
“A city like this,” he continues, “there’s tons and tons of businesses that we can go to. Sometimes we have to go outside of Chester to find things, but when there are opportunities for us [to shop in Chester] we do the best we can.”
Youtz agrees: “For the people who’ve been in it, who’ve had skin in the game — like all the people who have been season ticket holders since 2010 — they try to go to Chester, try to be a customer in Chester.”
Youtz goes on about all the places he and his friends frequent, from the place that has the “best jerk chicken you’ve ever had” to the mom and pop ice place that makes the “freshest water ices” to a more unlikely regular destination: a Sunoco that two Chester residents, Dan and Pat, have owned “forever.” It has “great” Italian hoagies, and it’s less than quarter of a mile from the stadium — perfect for a pre- or post-game meal.
But it’s not just about convenience or a delicious sandwich. Youtz and his friends are “cognisant that if you’re spending money in Chester, it stays in Chester.”
On a smaller scale, Sons of Ben does even more (so much more, in fact, that Gusler says the group is trying to cut back so they don’t “lose sight of certain things.”) There’s Coats for Chester, which they don’t run but at which they simply help out, and for which the Sons of Ben gather hundreds of coats a year.
There’s also a school supply drive that the Sons of Ben do in conjunction with the Union Foundation,leading up to the start of Chester Upland district school year. Afterwards, the Sons of Ben drop off a van – “literally a van,” boasts Youtz — filled with, as Gusler puts it, “everything you could think of.” The Sons of Ben have even opted to continue this drive after the Union Foundation decided not to do so from this year on.
This commitment to Chester and the Chester school district also led the group to a impressive effort two years ago. Although a gridlock at the state level meant that the budgets had not been set ahead of the first day of school, Upland district teachers decided that they were going to go in anyway — despite the fact that they thought they wouldn’t be paid. The Sons of Ben bought hoagies, chips, and fruit from a local shop, went to Chester High School, and provided free lunch to the teachers.
Youtz, who was no longer on the board at that time, praises it as his “favorite thing he heard of the group doing.”
The list of philanthropic efforts, big and small, the Union has either spearheaded or partnered with goes on and on — clean-ups within Chester, the All-Star Playground build, helping give equipment and funding to Chester City United. The multitudinous efforts from the Sons of Ben have hugely contributed to the fact that, as James says, “Chester isn’t spoken about in the same kind of tones it used to be.”
He continues: “I’m really happy with the fact that there has been that kind of impact and continued growth, to the point where that impact is sustainable and remarkable.”
And, of course, Youtz agrees. “Nick Sakiewicz said from the beginning that the Philadelphia Union want to be a very good friend to Chester.
“That’s something that we’ve fully believed in, and always will.”