Friday, June 12, 2015

Looking at the 31st Annual Answer the Call event through the eyes of one family

Rusty Staub at the event
I had the privilege Wednesday of getting to attend the 31st Annual New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund Game and Family Day at Citi Field. The Answer the Call event included a free pre-game picnic in the Bullpen Plaza area of the ballpark for about 800 relatives, family members, and supporters of fallen FDNY, NYPD, and PANY members.

Almost everybody attending the event looked like they were having a fun time, eating, drinking, and commiserating. Afterwards, they all sat together in the ballpark's left field stands to watch the New York Mets/San Francisco Giants game. (Unfortunately, Matt Harvey was off his game, and the Mets lost, 7-4.)

The charity was started in 1985 by Mets legend Rusty Staub. It was designed to make sure all of the families of those first responders killed in the line of duty would get taken care of for the rest of their lives.

Arielle DiCiotto, Director of Development for the Benefit Fund, told me that the charity currently helps around 600 families of fallen first responders. She said that each family gets an immediate check of $25,000, and an annual stipend of $4,000. In all, the organization has given out an incredible $130 million to the families.

The front of the Ambelas tribute shirt.
But the Benefit Fund is not just about helping the families with financial assistance. It is also about bringing them together. Rusty Staub pointed out that while we have empathy for the fallen first responder families, we cannot really understand what they are going through. But he said that the veteran family members -- those who lost their loved one years ago -- help those who recently lost a family member on the line of duty, and that this day helps bring them together.

There are so many poignant stories here of how this terrific organization helps so many. So in order to break down how the Benefit Fund works, I am going to tell you what it means for one family.

I didn't know Lt. Gordon (Matt) Ambelas, but he lived in my neighborhood on Staten Island, and his wake and funeral were literally around the block from me. I did go to one of the viewings for him when he passed away last July. The firefighter died in the line of duty while searching for victims in a Brooklyn apartment fire.

Margaret Gulliksen (r.) with Cido the Clown,
who entertained the kids at the picnic.
Also, my friend Margaret Gulliksen, who is an officer in the Staten Island Athletic Club, the running club I belong to, has a strong connection to the family. She and her husband George were best friends with the Ambelas family, and Margaret actually introduced Matt to his wife Nanette. Margaret read Nanette's eulogy at Lt. Ambelas' funeral. And our running club sponsored a race in his memory.

Over 100 friends, family members, and fellow firefighters were there at the picnic in honor of Lt. Ambelas. His Brooklyn firehouse made up t-shirts for their group (see above).

I talked to Eric Bischoff about Lt. Ambelas. Bischoff is the Staten Island trustee for the Uniformed Firefighters Association, the firefighter's union, and he emceed the race. He also used to be Matt's roommate back in the day. The two were friends for over 13 years, and even vacationed together with their wives.

Bischoff told me that after a firefighter dies, it takes a while for the money to come in from life insurance policies and other benefits to help the family. But two days after the firefighter's passing, representatives for the Benefit Fund showed up with a $25,000 check for the family, so they had immediate financial assistance. Bischoff also said that the families heal through events like this, and that things like this picnic show that the fallen heroes are not forgotten.

Nanette Ambelas, widow of Lt. Gordon (Matt)
 Ambelas, and their daughters
Giovanna and Gabriella
I also got to say hello to Nanette Ambelas and her adorable daughters Giovanna and Gabriella. The two girls were among the children of the fallen heroes who threw out the first pitch at Wednesday's game. I asked her if they had practiced their first pitches. She smiled and said no.

My friend Margaret, who is still close with the Ambelas family, called the event "awesome," and said she appreciated what the New York Mets were doing here in hosting the day. She said that days like this help the families feel really good, and feel like they mean something to New Yorkers as a nice tribute, instead of people just saying that it was a shame that the heroes died. She said "We're all happy" for the day," but at the same time we're sad because we miss him a lot."

George Gulliksen
George Gulliksen, Margaret's husband, had recollections about his close friendship with Matt, and his words were happy and poignant. He said that he and Matt bonded right away when they met in the fire department 17 years ago partly because they had both worked at the post office before, and partly because they had so much in common. Both of them loved heavy metal music, especially Metallica and Iron Maiden, and they both had long hair in the 80s. Both liked to fish, and would frequently meet up at Willowbrook Park with their kids as the years went on and fish together.

George described Lt. Ambelas as being an "incredible" person, and called him a great leader. He said Matt was "always smiling" and always ready to lend a helping hand to others. George described his best friend as being like the mayor of Staten Island, because he knew everyone.

The back of the shirt
George and Matt were also both big fans of the New York Jets. Lt. Ambelas' favorite Jet player was Darrelle Revis. So when Revis came back to the Jets this year, George said he cried when he heard the news.

Hearing all of these specific memories of Lt. Ambelas made me appreciate not just what a good man he was, but how his family and friends miss him so. It also illustrated why an organization like the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund is so important -- because it ensures that the memory of fallen heroes will stay alive, and that they families will get meaningful assistance for the rest of their lives.

For more information about the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund, you can visit to donate and to learn more about the organization.  You can also follow them on Facebook (, Twitter (@answerthecall), and Instagram (@answerthecallnyc)

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