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Philly radio DJ doing good with Thanksgiving turkeys, pooches, and now baseball cards for kids

Local DJ John DeBella is helping step up the giving as the holidays approach.
WGMK morning host John DeBella, seated with the Phanatic at a Fox 29 event for vets, is stepping up charitable efforts this November. (Provided)

If anyone is notably active in regard to charitable giving (and getting listeners to do likewise), it is Philadelphia radio icon John DeBella, of WMGK FM.

Not to pile on the accolades, but beloved morning host and DJ DeBella seems to be so often involved in charitable and gifting events and programs, that you wonder when he has time to be on the radio (“you’re too kind,” he said with a laugh). During November – between his Annual Thanksgiving Turkey Drop, the dog welfare charity he is involved with, a huge and highly personal baseball card giveaway to a 9-year-old victim of the Santa Rosa, California wildfire – giving seems to be the only thing on his mind.

“I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a thousand more times: no matter how down you may feel, there is always someone more down than you who needs help,” DeBella said from his desk at 102.9 WMGK. “This is the great part of radio: being able to move people to understand how good their lives are, how they easily able to help others.”

Take the case of Loren Smith, a Santa Rosa resident (and Oakland A's fan) whose collection of baseball cards, signed hats and jerseys was decimated in the recent string of wildfires that devastated Northern California.

Maybe losing memorabilia doesn’t seem like much to the average guy, but the things that make us feel good can be monumental when lost. “I saw his handwritten letter on-line, in pencil – in 9-year-old writing – about how he lost everything, and it was just adorable,” said DeBella.

Upon remembering a treasure trove of baseball cards in his attic belonging to his now-32-year old son (“He doesn’t give a damn about them, really”), DeBella and his producer went into action, he sald: “This kid lost everything, so perhaps doing something good could cheer him up.”

Upon phoning Smith’s parents for permission to put Loren on-air, DeBella found a precocious child, “just as much of a character as that letter portrayed” and let the kid rip. When DeBella asked the youth if he would “do me a favor” and take the cards off his hands, Smith was amazed to hear that over 4,000 of DeBella’s cards were coming his way.

“The calls and texts I got from crying listeners was incredible,” he said. “I could cry telling you this – each of the baseball card books’ covers features my then-9-year-old son’s drawings.”

After that, not only did listener-collectors start sending A's memorabilia DeBella’s way, Smith’s favorite Phillies player, Aaron Nola, heard about the kid’s plight (“or rather Nola’s mom did”), and now he is sending personalized memorabilia.

“We are waiting to send this huge box, because currently the Smiths don’t have an address," DeBella said.

Fifteen additional baseball teams, including the Phillies and the A's, are helping to rebuild young Smith’s collection. “That’s literally the least we can do.” 

DeBella is known for his baseball-related charities for the likes of the Pitch In For Baseball organization where the radioman asks listeners and ”empty-nesters whose kids left their gloves and bats behind when they grew up” to donate them to worthy needy teams in America and South America.

Then there is his “favorite thing that I do,” DeBella’s 35th annual Turkey Drop, on November 21 – the largest one day food gathering event in Philadelphia – where listeners can donate turkeys, groceries, cash and checks to Cityteam Philadelphia, who in turn provide holiday meals to less fortunate families in the region.

“I saw an ad in the paper from Cityteam Ministers that read ‘For $25, you can feed an entire family for Thanksgiving,” said DeBella. “I could afford that, and did so, then thought, 'Hey, if listeners can afford one extra turkey this year, I will wait on the corner of 19th & Walnut and you can bring them to me.' We got like 175 turkeys that first year. Now, for the last eight years, we get at least 10,000 turkeys, not counting monies and groceries. You never feel better than you help anyone less fortunate than yourself. And you never know who that might be."

Lest you think, DeBella – “an old hippie who believes in the goodness of people, and a recovering Catholic” – and his charitable November ends with people in need, there’s his passion regarding the pooches.

During the annual National Dog Show in Oaks, Pa., November 18-19, the Philadelphia Kennel Club is awarding DeBella with the “Friends to Dogs” Award, which comes with a $5,000 stipend for him to donate. “I’m donating it to Finding Shelter which is a dog shelter I work with, and Alpha Bravo Dog Training which trains dogs for veterans and soldiers with PTSD. And you know how I feel about vets,” said DeBella, who has several charitable events annually dedicated to our nation’s finest. “It’s all about giving. Always."