Bandits Join Bills, Sabres in Supporting Buffalo's East Side
Katrina Washington used to Uber to the Tops market on Jefferson Avenue from her job on Fillmore, a convenient stop to grab dinner for her two children on her way home from work.
Washington did not lose any friends or family members when a white supremacist walked into that Tops and killed 10 people last Saturday. But she felt like she did.
"It's been a lot of sadness. It's been just like an eerie feeling all over," Washington said Wednesday from the corner of Jefferson and Utica Street, one block north of Tops. "... I was sad as if I lost someone, and I didn't."
Washington stopped and surveyed the scene around her, where players and staff from the Buffalo Bandits, Bills, and Sabres were serving free meals and chatting with members of the community.
"But I like this type of feeling," she said. "I like this."
The local teams mobilized Wednesday to begin doing their part in response to the tragic hate crime, an effort that began when the Bills - who are in town for next week's OTAs - made the decision as a team to visit and volunteer on the East Side.
Sabres forward Kyle Okposo, goaltender Malcolm Subban, and general manager Kevyn Adams joined along with nine Buffalo-based members of the Bandits: Josh Byrne, Chase Fraser, Tehoka Nanticoke, Chris Cloutier, Brad McCulley, Ian MacKay, Dalton Sulver, Nathaniel Kozevnikov, Frank Brown, and Dhane Smith.
"I canceled everything possible to be here today," Smith said. "All my teammates had my back, and everybody came. It's a great showing."
The teams partnered with World Central Kitchen, a Washington D.C. based non-profit that serves meals to people in need. The organization plans to serve 1,500 meals per day to help fill the void created by the indefinite closure of the Tops on Jefferson.
That void not only includes a lack of accessible alternatives for fresh, affordable food on the East Side, but a loss of community. Jack Thompson and his niece, Tosha, described the Tops on Jefferson as a place where they might run into a friend or neighbor. Both said they have experienced racism while shopping at grocery stores outside of their own community.
"Outside of our community you may get questioned or doubted," Tosha said. "But within your community, everybody kind of knows everybody and you're OK."
Similar experiences with racism inspired Smith to address his Bandits teammates prior to their playoff game against the Toronto Rock last Sunday, just one day after the attack. Smith, reserved by nature, opened up about the challenges he faced growing up in a predominantly white sport.
On Tuesday, Smith announced he will donate $50 to victims' families for every Bandits goal scored during their next playoff game, against the Rock in Hamilton, Ontario this Saturday. He is also auctioning off a game-used stick and game-worn gloves to benefit those same families.
"[The attack] really hit home for me, it being in Buffalo," Smith, who is from Kitchener, Ontario, said. "This is my second home now. I'm building a home in Buffalo.
"... And also, being a Black athlete, especially in a primarily white sport, it's tough. My teammates feel bad for me. Yes, it's tough on myself, but I feel bad for the next generation, for those kids that are growing up and not understanding why they're getting treated differently. When I do have kids, I don't want them to go through what I'm going through."
Pastor James Giles, who has served as a community leader on Buffalo's East Side since founding his Back to Basics Outreach Ministries in the mid-nineties, described the breadth of challenges the community will face in the wake of the shooting - food scarcity, yes, but also addressing the mental trauma afflicted on children and adults alike.
"Most people when you live in a place, in a community, you feel safe in that space," Tosha Thompson said. "... After Saturday, this is not the most comfortable place for me. I'm uncomfortable in my own skin in my own community. And that's hard to wrap your head around."
Solving the problem, Giles said, is no overnight issue. The Bandits, Bills, and Sabres have each shared a list of resources for individuals who are interested in donating or volunteering their time.
Help the community and honor the lives of the victims from Saturday's racist attack on the East Side.
"I've been telling people, that this is not a drop-off, the drive-by mission here," Giles said. "The type of trauma that has been created around this incident is going to be long-lasting and long-term. So, we look for sustainability."
So, while Wednesday was not a solution, it was for some - if only for a short time - a reprieve.
"It's important for us to come out and show our support and reflect on what's happened in our community and be together with people," Okposo, who began living in Buffalo full-time in 2018, said.
"For me personally, I just wanted to talk to people and just have conversations with them and ask them how they're doing and let them try and vent, let them say whatever they wanted. Just try and show compassion. Because I do care. I care about what happened here. It's obviously devastating.
"There are no right words to describe what happened. Just being here to support the community and showing the Bills guys, the Bandits, the Sabres, everybody - when you look in somebody's eyes and you see what it does to their spirit, how much it lifts them just feeling that little bit of normalcy in a time of chaos is worth every second."
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