There’s nothing like being home for the holidays. For some former professional Buffalo athletes, Western New York has become their adopted home and they have remained here long after their careers on the playing field have ended. Often, our community is better because of their decision to stay.

Ruben Brown, a Lynchburg, Va., native and Buffalo Bills guard from 1995-03, as well as a nine-time National Football League Pro Bowler, is one such individual. Every December for the last five years, Brown has made a concerted effort to make sure that local underprivileged children have the opportunity to share in the holiday spirit.

Through his charitable organization, the Ruben Brown Foundation, students from a local school are chosen to participate in a holiday shopping experience. There’s a bit of a twist, however. The students do not get to shop for themselves. Rather, Brown asks that they shop for their friends and family instead.

This year, two dozen students in kindergarten through fourth grade from the Aloma D. Johnson Fruit Belt Community Charter School on Michigan Avenue were selected for the event, which took place last Thursday. The students were bused from their school to the Target store on Transit Road in Lancaster. The excitement for the youngsters began long before arriving at the store as they were wide-eyed at seeing the many homes adorned with Christmas lights en route.

Once at the store, the children were advised by Brown and volunteers from his foundation that each would be given a budget of $50 for which they should shop for gifts for a loved one. Typically, some of the children initially struggled with having to think of others before themselves, but all soon were aglow at loading their shopping carts with toys, trinkets and (surprise!) even household essentials to give to their family members and friends. The spirit of giving filled the air.

Brown said he does this event because he believes it’s imperative that all children learn the value of giving back, a lesson he was taught as a child by his deacon grandfather. Brown recalled being inspired by watching his grandfather work very hard at giving back to his local community – be it through work at his church or delivering meals to the housebound through the Meals on Wheels organization.

Brown’s hope for every child is that they will have someone in their lives that will inspire them to think of others before themselves. The Ruben Brown Foundation is but one organization among a host of others established by former professional athletes who want to give back to our community. A list of Buffalo sports notables – Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Ryan Miller, Pat LaFontaine – barely scratches the surface of the many professional athletes who have made positive contributions to Western New York.

With all the negative publicity that sometimes pervades the world of professional sports, it’s nice to learn about the positive legacy these players and others seem determined to leave – a gift to us all.

Wesley Watson is a sophomore at Lancaster High School.