Independence Fund gets boost from MLB

December 10th, 2021

NEW YORK -- When the Military Veteran Professionals Business Resource Group (MVP BRG) launched in 2019 -- the ninth of Major League Baseball’s employee networks fostering diversity, equity and inclusion -- its leaders would not have been able to suspect that two years of a global pandemic would delay their efforts to host a volunteer event at the Office of the Commissioner.

So when Steve Swindell -- senior manager of security and ballpark operations and a co-president of the BRG -- set out to plan its first event this year, he came up with the idea of a coat drive for veterans in need during the holiday season. It just so happened that when he spoke about it to a colleague, Marc Son -- coordinator of global media sales and a co-chair of the Asian BRG -- he discovered that Son’s group had a similar plan in motion.

The two BRGs then decided to partner up -- and with assistance from MLB’s community affairs department, the company’s annual coat drive came to support the Independence Fund, a national veteran nonprofit organization. Founded in 2007, the group works to assist catastrophically wounded, injured, or ill United States military veterans as they overcome physical, mental and emotional wounds sustained in the line of duty.

Since late summer, the Independence Fund has also supported more than 120,000 Afghan refugees currently housed at U.S. military installations across the country under the Special Immigrant Visa, which is granted to persons who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces in the past.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this is a gift sent from heaven,’ because at the end of the day, I still get to participate doing something, not directly for U.S. veterans, but for people who helped U.S. veterans that were in Afghanistan,” said Swindell, an Army veteran. “I know from being in a foreign country [that] when there is someone local there that can help you not only with the traditions, but communication -- it’s an added tool that you can’t put a price on.

“These men and women from Afghanistan left their homes, and while we were there, they were hospitable to us and helped us when we needed it. So it was the least we could do to help out.”

Over the course of three weeks, MLB employees donated around 100 gently used and laundered coats and jackets of all sizes to the cause. On Wednesday afternoon, more than 30 volunteers gathered in the company’s auditorium to pack them into boxes that will be delivered to Fort McCoy, a 60,000-acre military base in Wisconsin where upward of 10,000 Afghan refugees are bracing for a cold winter while completing the steps of their resettlement process.

Jeremy Davis, program director of the Independence Fund and a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, made an appearance at the event and gave an impassioned speech to the volunteers about the importance of the work they were doing.

“Afghanistan has a place in a lot of the folks that served’s hearts,” Davis said. “We felt it imperative to get involved in any way we could through bringing some of our allies during the evacuation process. … It’s going to be a big adjustment for these folks. They’ve been uprooted with not a lot of stuff, in a new country that’s unfamiliar, all the things that go with being out of your home, language barriers -- and now we’re going to throw the climate on top of everything else.”

Alongside the coat drive, the volunteers packed relief items for the displaced families, sorting polar fleece jackets, sweatshirts, throw blankets and gloves into bags delineated for boys, girls, men and women. Toiletry kits with items such as toothpaste, soap and baby wipes were also included, and Lysol -- one of the league’s partners -- supported the event by donating sets of disinfectant wipes for all the families.

In just one hour, the volunteers managed to package another 100 bags of supplies to aid the Afghan refugees. Buoyed by the employees’ energetic spirit and philanthropic drive, the event was also a way for them to connect in a time when those opportunities are still few and far between.

“I saw people that I haven’t seen in quite some time,” said Darrell Lampa, senior director of talent acquisition and a fellow co-chair of the Asian BRG. “[I could] catch up with them and see what they’ve been up to, planning for the holidays and stuff like that. It’s always nice to get that camaraderie in person. It was good collaborative energy in here, all for a very good cause.”

Davis, whose organization has endured “hair on fire” moments at the forefront of this relief work, shared how impressed he was by the volunteers’ effort and MLB’s contribution, remarking that the base would receive even more aid than it expected -- “a good problem to have.”

“It’s really quite amazing. Since August when the evacuation efforts started in Afghanistan, there’s been an outpouring of community support at the local and the national level, and we’re just happy at the Independence Fund to play a small part in it. ... Where this is going to be successful is at this local level, where folks are chipping in at different businesses. Whether it’s at MLB or your local plumber or electrician or whatever, that’s how we’re going to make a difference and be able to support our Afghan allies.

“And on a personal level, it fills your heart wallet, right? It makes my heart happy to see people, especially this time of year, coming together to support other human beings.”