Presence matters a great deal. When you’re present, you’re in tune with the needs of everyone around you. You see what they need, do your best to help, and build community. It’s one of the things that helps us build solidarity across various lines and makes the world a better place.
Just ask Didi Richards, the soul of the New York Liberty.
On April 15, the 24-year-old and the Liberty hosted an event with Wellfare, the New York-based free food program, in East Harlem. They, the Brooklyn Nets and the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) have been in partnership with Wellfare and held an event back in October in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn with then Nets forward, TJ Warren. Wellfare is a non-profit that works to solve food insecurity and helps provide nutritious food to the communities they serve. HSS is one of the most well regarded hospitals in the world.
At the East Harlem event, Wellfare and HSS had staff on site that spoke English, Spanish, and Mandarin to help guide community members fully connect to the services there as well as benefits like Medicaid, SNAP, and Medicare. For the folks that came out, they were able to: receive blood pressure screenings and nutrition education with HSS clinicians, provided free yoga mats, pedometers, and resistance bands, and Better Boxes via Wellfare.
Having events like this take on greater importance when you consider the current landscape in New York City. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity was a dire issue for New Yorkers. It worsened when the pandemic was at its most dangerous. And now, due to budget cuts, New Yorkers who utilize benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have been left out in the cold waiting for their help to arrive. We find ourselves in a situation where various providers and organizations have to do more with less even as the need continues to rise. It’s tough, but everyone is doing their best to be there for the communities they serve.
At the event, I got a chance to talk with Cole Riley, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Wellfare. Riley has been doing this work
“What we’ve been doing for the past couple of years, both here in East Harlem and in Brooklyn, is distributing a bunch of great, delicious, nutritious products that families need and families want. Better for you alternatives to what you typically find at the bodega or the low cost grocer. So we’re bringing in Kind bars and vitamin waters and really, really healthy products with less sugar, less salt, less fat and families love it. Families love it here in East Harlem. They love it in Brooklyn, and we’re going to be expanding this program because there’s a lot of demand for this.”
In previous interviews, Riley mentioned that the goal of Wellfare is to become a large scale grocery retailer for communities across New York City that provides produce and affordable, healthy options for all. He explained to me:
“The vision for Wellfare is to become a disruptive, affordable grocer, selling better products at affordable prices. That solves food insecurity, and not another band aid, not a small little experiment or a little campaign in one neighborhood. But a scalable model with sustainable economics behind the scenes sustainable pricing on the shelf that really is transformative. So, that’s what we’re adding to and what we’re doing today is the building blocks. The Better Box is the first step to that long term vision of becoming an affordable grocer.”
Being there in person, I got to see firsthand the togetherness Riley and Wellfare have cultivated with the East Harlem community. The residents were familiar with Riley and the Wellfare staff and knew them threw their work over the past year and change. For folks who didn’t know about the event ahead of time, staff and NYCHA residents were able to come together, point them in the right direction, ensure that they were taken care of and connect them to services that will help in the short and long term.
Didi Richards has been helping out all across New York this offseason. Around Christmas time, she took kids in Queens on a surprise shopping spree for the holidays. She was there in East Harlem handing out the Better Boxes, assisting the HSS and Wellfare workers, and making new friends in the community. She spoke about her experience and said:
“It’s a great event. It’s humbling for sure to see everyone and how big they’re smiling, regardless of their circumstances. It’s always good to see and what they’re receiving is also even better from HSS. Whether it be yoga mats and ways to work out, and from Wellfare, all the healthy food they’re giving them. It’s exciting to be out here honestly, and it’s a great day for great vibes.”
Throughout her time in the WNBA, Richards has been a fan favorite among the Liberty faithful. She’s someone that is always in high spirits, cheering her teammates on, and providing them positive reassurance. Even when things have been difficult for her, she’s been resilient and able to bounce back. Richards is someone that can bridge the gap and is someone that people gravitate to. At the event, fans stopped to take photos with her and engaged in conversation as folks continued to build community with one another. Richards’ presence took an already great event and made it even more special.
Richards is also someone who is visible and outspoken on important issues. A lot of times, we tend to place athletes in a box. We think of them as one thing and one thing only and when they deviate from that, it becomes troublesome. That approach limits how we view the athletes and can sometimes prevent us from fully being seen as human beings. It also has the effect of preventing them from accessing new opportunities and expanding their horizons. Richards spoke on it a while back, and she talked with me about WNBA players being recognized for their excellence on and off the court:
“I think it just shows that the W is evolving [and] putting us in different lights where we can shine. Like I said before, [Napheesa Collier] and her book club, Jocelyn Willoughby and her book club, putting people where they can succeed and where they can make a difference in the world. I think that’s where the W deserves to pat themselves on the back.”
As the WNBA continues to expand and as the Liberty continue their work across the five boroughs, having a player like Richards lead the way will go a long way in fostering that sense of community.
Training camp is right around the corner, and Liberty season is approaching. As Richards enters her third season in the league, she spoke about her excitement level for the 2023 campaign:
“I’m just excited to get on the court. I haven’t been on the court, I feel like, for two years. Whether it be injuries or just situations that I’ve been in. So I’m just excited that I’m able to feel a little healthier, feel a little better this year, get out there and play how I wanna play and have some fun.”
Richards promises to be one of the more intriguing players on the Liberty roster. She was one of the best defenders in college and when she’s been on the court in the W, she’s made winning plays.
The Liberty present a myriad of matchup problems for opponents, and Richards’ size and versatility figures to play a part in that. She’s a heady passer and elite defender that can guard three positions. With a clean bill of health and an offseason to build on her game, look for Richards to make a big contribution as New York chases the championship.