Denzel Ward could sense the heavy emotions through his phone.
As he delivered calls last spring to a portion of the 21 people he selected to assist with donations following the early onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, he heard people who were crying. People who couldn't stop saying "thank you." People who could finally lift the weight of significant financial and mental burden off their shoulders.
That's what Ward, one of the Browns' top leaders at cornerback, hoped to do last April when he and members of his Make Them Know Your Name Foundation received and sorted through applications from small business owners and employees from the service industry who were struggling to grapple with the hardships of the pandemic. He worked with his mom, Nicole, and several other members of the foundation to find the most impactful people and places for the donations, which covered the biggest monthly expenses for people out of work or struggling to navigate their business through the pandemic.
"It was very personal," Ward said about making the phone calls. "A lot of people were crying and emotional and were just excited and filled with joy that the foundation and I found a way to help them during a time like that."
Those who received donations from Ward are just as thankful now as they were when they received their message last spring.
"I think he saved me, honestly," said Jessica Novosel, the owner of JFray Productions, a video production company in Cleveland. Before the assistance from Ward, Novosel and her company were running short on ways to stay in business after numerous cancelations from clients that scheduled events months in advance, and the donation provided crucial temporary aid.
"This was my 10th year in business and I was supposed to have my best year yet in the books," she said. "Everything was going well, but when COVID happened, it was more mental for me because everything around me was crumbling. Filling the (application) out for me was a shot in the dark … It was definitely so helpful. I wish I could thank him forever for that."
Patrick Ciamacco, the owner of Blank Canvas Theatre in Cleveland, encountered similar struggles — canceled showings, a shortage of events and an unexpected future for when the theater would be able to host spectators or safely conduct the other exhausting preparations that go into a performance.
Ward covered the theater's rent, which was one of the first steps that has ultimately helped Ciamacco slowly find his footing. In recent months, the theater has been able to host select shows after rearranging the audience, stage and parking lot setups to accommodate safe and socially distant performances and offer drive-in showings.
"Stuff started to really pile up, and we were stuck in that initial fear of everything," he said. "To have a little bit of that weight lifted off our shoulders to go into the next couple months just helped with some of that stress and beginning to plan."
Other people requested and used part of their donations to help others around their community who were also in need.
Connie and Rich Cieker are owners of a small family-run pizza shop, Contessa's on the Lake, in Chippewa Lake, and the shop had proudly given free meals to kids around the community through a meal box constructed beside their driveway, which is located next to their shop.
When they realized more kids were visiting their meal box at the beginning of the pandemic, they wanted to increase their food variety and ensure all kids could grab a meal five days a week with the addition of a weekender bag. Their outreach to the community was so strong that a local customer submitted the original application to Ward asking him to assist the couple's efforts and cover their rent.
Thanks to Ward's assistance, Contessa's on the Lake was able to provide roughly 4,000 free hot meals — which served about 275 kids per week — from April through June.
"When the call came across my phone, I came out of the kitchen and started screaming," Connie said. "The need was great. We had quite a few kids, and we were very pleased that Denzel was able to help us."
Ward was equally pleased to be in a position to change the lives of so many people and hear their rejoices through the phone. His donations last spring carried a significant impact on several businesses and people who could still keep their doors and phone lines open today.
"It feels amazing," he said. "I'm just really appreciative to be able to have the opportunity to help people in the community. I know how difficult it is to start a business and get things up and going. Just to have an opportunity to help someone out and ease their bills and put a smile on people's faces, my foundation and I just appreciate the whole process of it."