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Monthly event connects homeless, resources

Volunteers cut the hair of homeless people at a Project Connect event on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 in Tempe, Ariz. (Bob McClay/KTAR)

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Hundreds of the Valley's homeless turned out in Tempe on Thursday for something that may help them turn their lives around.

It was the Valley of the Sun United Way's Project Connect event at Sun Valley Community Church. Among other things, volunteers helped homeless people find out if they qualify for food stamps or AHCCCS.

"Before they leave, they actually know ‘Can I have an EBT card so I can go and buy some food?'" said United Way Vice President Amy Schwabenlender. "We also provide them with some simple things, like a shower and a haircut, to help people feel better about themselves. They can also get health care services, flu shots, employment and housing services."

There were hundreds of volunteers helping with the event. One of them is a man who knows what it's like to be out on the streets.

It was 10 years ago that Gabriel Hernandez's alcoholism led to the end of his 24-year marriage. His wife divorced him.

"I chose to be homeless," he said. "At that time, I had too much pride."

Hernandez is a former wrestling and football coach at Dysart High School in Avondale and a veteran.

"I was a sergeant and a squad leader," he said. "I had a lot of pride. I didn't need any help from anybody and didn't want any help from anybody."

After eight years on the streets, he got help from a Tempe church two years ago. The church helped him get an apartment and a part-time job. At the event, he was helping other homeless people, including some people that he knew when he was on the streets. Hernandez told them that if he could get his life back together, they can do it too.

Schwabenlender said that Project Connect is a once-a-month event that brings social services to various parts of the Valley.

"We know that a lot of social services are in the central Phoenix area, downtown Phoenix. They're not necessarily out in the East Valley," she said. "By taking services to where the people are and where they need them, we are making things easier on people."

Next month's Project Connect event will be held in El Mirage.

About the Author

Years with the company: I started on January 2, 2006.

Education: I was born in San Antonio, Texas, but we moved to Phoenix when I was one-year-old in 1957. I grew up here and graduated from Alhambra High School and attended Phoenix College.

Family: I live in north Phoenix with my wife Rene' and my son Devin.

Favorite food: Lots of favorite food, but our favorite restaurant is Fajitas.

Favorite spot in Arizona: The Little America Hotel in Flagstaff.

Favorite news memory: We have to go back to October 15, 1979. I was a country music air personality at KROP Radio in Brawley, California, when we had a 6.7 earthquake. Thankfully, there were no deaths and only minor injuries, but the entire community was pretty freaked out and listening to the station on their transistor radios. I would not want to go through an earthquake again, but it sure was a great night to work in radio and see how it can make a difference in people's lives.

First job: Working as a stringer for 'The Arizona Republic' at high school football games. My first real job was flipping burgers at the old Sandy's Hamburgers at 51st Avenue and Indian School Road. My first radio job was as announcer at KALJ radio in Yuma in 1977.

First concert: My Dad took me to see Jimmy Dean at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in the 1960's. It was before the Coliseum was built. The only thing I remember is Jimmy Dean singing his big hit "Big Bad John."

Favorite sports team: Phoenix Roadrunners minor league hockey. My dad took me to a game when I was in grade school, and I was hooked. I wanted to be a radio hockey play-by-play man. I used to take my cassette recorder and sit up in the rafters of the Coliseum and do play-by-play. It was great later in life to also take my son to Roadrunners games. Too bad the team just folded, I'll miss them. (Going to the Coyotes is fun, but they're not "my" team.)

Outside interests: My family and I are active in our church - Shiloh Community Church in Phoenix. Devin is a high school student at Scottsdale Christian Academy. He plays on the baseball, football, and basketball teams and sings in the choir. Obviously, we keep busy trying to go to all his events! We enjoy going to movies, sporting events, and long road trips. We like to vacation at the Beach Cottages in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego. And I love to play catch, basketball, football with my son.


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