The "Captain" label fits Jean Kelly. As executive director of the Interfaith Nutrition Network — a.k.a. "The INN" — she will be honored by the Jets on Saturday at Hofstra's James H. Shuart Stadium before the Green & White Practice.
"We are very, very honored and delighted that the Jets have been involved with us for many, many years," Kelly said Wednesday. "We are sorry to see them leave the area, but we know they aren't going to leave our spirits and our support."
A quarter century ago, The INN was founded as a single soup kitchen in Hempstead, N.Y. Twenty-five years later, the network has 19 soup kitchens throughout Long Island and feeds 5,500 people each week. The Jets' relationship with The INN began more than a decade ago when kicker Nick Lowery heard about the charitable program.
"Nick wanted to know what he could do to be of help and got others involved," Kelly said. "Vinny Testaverde has been involved, Chad Pennington and his wife have been involved, and many other players as well."
Pennington, who founded his own 1st and 10 Foundation with his wife Robin five years ago, connected with The INN in '03.
"It's a great organization — they do an outstanding job," Pennington told newyorkjets.com. "We do our 'Share of Soles' program with the foundation, providing backpacks and brand new shoes for the homeless children that they work with so they can go to school on the first day with brand new shoes and a brand new backpack."
Kelly's network is a far-reaching organization and the Jets' involvement has been widespread. An annual stadium food drive at the Meadowlands benefits The INN and will continue to do so. For the past several years, the Jets Women's Organization (JWO) has visited the Mary Brennan INN, The Inn's largest soup kitchen in Hempstead, before Thanksgiving to decorate and serve food. The Jets staff has also donated clothes to the network for many years.
Debbie Sutton, wife of Jets defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, was cited by Kelly as an "incredible volunteer" who has been an active part of the charity for some time.
"We actually have a little clothing store where people can take clothing for free and Debbie helps set that up and interacts with the guests," Kelly said. "She also will help in the kitchen as well when we're short-handed with volunteers to serve the food. She has been absolutely phenomenal."
"Debbie's been involved at The INN for several years," Sutton said after Thursday's late practice. "The way she started is she usually went twice a week. Then she's been involved in the big fundraising ball they have ever year and she's really enjoyed the fundraising experience. They do a great job feeding the people who are obviously in need and providing clothing."
In addition to the soup kitchens, The INN also plays an active role in assisting Long Island's homeless population. Shelter is provided, but the charity also helps people get education so they have the ability to compete in the workforce.
"We have 25 apartments for families who are turning their lives around, we have three emergency shelters for people who are homeless at the moment, and we have about 100 people in the three emergency shelters — two for families and one for single men," Kelly said.
The INN serves hot meals five days a week. On Fridays, they give out bagged groceries to whoever is in need.
Due to the current economic climate, many people are suffering. There are fewer jobs and more unemployed, and higher prices have left a lot of people devastated and some even hopeless.
Kelly, who has played a role at The INN since its inception, actually feels blessed.
"I saw early on — as a lot of people recognize — that you can emotionally burn out from just being exposed to the trauma of other people's lives," she said. "But fortunately, because of the dignity and respect that is shown to everybody, we see hope every single day."
The Jets have a hope for this weekend. Along with A-1 First Class-Viking Moving and Storage, the team will host a food drive Saturday benefiting The INN. Fans have been asked to bring non-perishable food items.
"I think a lot of times people get caught up with their own lives and forget a lot of people go without the basic necessities," Pennington said. "Anytime you can help provide — whatever that is within your own budget — for someone else who lives without the basic necessities, I think it's extremely important. As human beings, we all have an obligation to help one another."
All food drives are important, but this one holds extra significance because this is The INN's most difficult time of the year. There just aren't that many food drives in the summer because schools are closed.
So "Captain" Jean Kelly will receive a warm ovation Saturday. She is more than deserving of the honor after a lifetime of charitable service, but there is one other thing you can do to really show your appreciation: Give.