When Amy Wender-Hoch was growing up in New York City, sometimes she felt a little different. She was, as a Dallas Cowboys fan in New York Giants country. Her father, who hailed from Oklahoma, had passed down his love for the team to his daughter, and every year, they’d go watch the Cowboys play the Giants.
One year, after the game, a Cowboys quarterback stopped to talk with Wender-Hoch. Today, she remembers the athlete delivering platitudes — stay in school, dream big, that sort of thing — but the thrill she got from encountering one of her heroes stayed with her. It was a moment she could hold on to whenever things got tough.
“If that was something that helped me,” she thought, then “maybe that would be something that could help other kids.”
Wender-Hoch has spent her life making such moments happen. Her nonprofit, the Wender Weis Foundation for Children, which celebrates 25 years this year, has connected thousands of underserved Bay Area kids with their sports heroes, all while raising millions of dollars for local service providers.
“Amy’s driven by a force that’s really different,” says Joanne Pasternack, the foundation board’s development chair. “When she calls, I know there’s something going on that’s going to make an impact.”
Pasternack met Wender-Hoch while working as head of community relations for the 49ers. Pasternack had just started at the job, and the foundation was putting on a Halloween event for kids and athletes. “One of my colleagues at the 49ers said, ‘This is one we always say yes to,’” she remembers.
The Halloween party has since shifted to a December event, and this year marks a decade of Holiday Heroes, which transforms Oracle Park into a winter wonderland where kids and players from teams like the 49ers, the San Jose Earthquakes and Stanford University roast s’mores, decorate cookies and play foosball side by side.
Wender-Hoch recalls seeing a little boy playing air hockey against the Quakes’ Chris Wondolowski one year. The boy won — whether Wondolowski let that happen, she didn’t ask. At the following year’s party, Wondolowski ran into the boy again and remembered him.
“His face lit up, and the little boy just felt like he really mattered,” Wender-Hoch says. “[He] started to think, maybe Chris isn’t that different than I am.”
Wender-Hoch’s capacity for empathy was shaped early; she volunteered at a soup kitchen in high school and later interned with the ACLU’s Children’s Rights Project. After graduating from Stanford and deciding to stay by the Bay, she was struck by how many kids weren’t able to take advantage of everything the area offered. Many of the children who attend Holiday Heroes come from families for whom the holiday season can be a source of financial stress. A blow-out party with the athletes they see on TV can help restore some of the season’s magic.
“My family couldn’t really afford Christmas growing up,” says Dennis Brown, the former 49ers defensive end. He was raised primarily by his grandmother and was homeless for a period as a child. He says Wender-Hoch understands the impact that meeting a hero can have on a kid. “It’s always cool for me to share my story and talk to young people because it’s kind of like ‘been there, done that,’” he says. A few months ago, he joined the foundation’s board.
Twenty-five years marks a turning point for Wender-Hoch and her namesake organization. “One thing that we’ve really started to try to do is create more legacy projects,” she explains. To that end, they recently partnered with the Warriors Community Foundation to refurbish a basketball court at the Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School in San Francisco. And they’ve donated rooms named after benefactors at both UCSF Benioff and Lucile Packard children’s hospitals. Gifts like that can have a lasting impact, continuing to give long after they’re officially completed — not unlike how a passing moment of electricity between a child and her hero can change that child’s trajectory.
The heart of her work is still those moments, even as the foundation matures. “Amy’s not trying to solve an intractable problem,” says Pasternack. “She’s bringing a moment of joy and hoping it sparks something in a child that they can carry forward.”
It turns out it’s not just sparking something in children. Recently, Pasternack was at a golf outing, and Ian Williams, the former 49ers defensive lineman, approached her.
“He came up and said, ‘When’s that cool event at Giants stadium with all the kids?’” she recalls. She told him it’d becoming up in December.
“Can I go?” he asked.
A Brief History of the Wender Weis Foundation
1996: Jennifer and Joe Montana get involved with outreach efforts.
2002: The nonprofit makes a $50K contribution to the Giants Community Fund, bankrolling little leagues across the Bay Area.
2010: Kicks off an annual holiday iceskating party with families from Safe and Sound (formerly SF Child Abuse Prevention Center). Holiday Heroes moves to Oracle Park. Kristi Yamaguchi headlines.
2016: Refurbishes a basketball court with the Warriors Community Foundation at the Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School in SF.