To the naked eye, Rep's Place on Jackson Street may seem like any other corner bar in West Scranton.
But if one were to wander in the back and read the "thank you" cards and letters pinned to the bulletin board hanging on the wall, one would learn of the quiet but generous actions of a group who call themselves the Black Sheep of West Scranton.
If the name doesn't sound familiar, that's because they depend on word of mouth to spread their mission and do not spend money on advertising. Instead, 100 percent of their proceeds go to helping children under the age of 18 with illnesses and other issues.
"Our charities are children. ‘Helping kids in need' – that's our motto, and that's our mission statement. We find a sick child that's out there or a family that needs our help. It's a kid in need, not always a sick child, but a child or a family that needs our support," explained Treasurer and Vice President Joe Matyjevich.
"Ninety-five percent of the time they go right through because we do our homework, and then we decide on a monetary donation – anywhere from $100 to $1,000. Two weeks ago, we actually gave out $3,000 to three different charities."
Matyjevich has been a member since 1992; the group itself has been around for over 20 years and has aided hundreds of children and their families in that time. Currently, they have 33 active members who meet once a month at Rep's Place.
"It was a group of guys who actually got together at one of the local establishments and heard of someone that was in need. They passed the hat around to get something started to try and help the child who needed help and it evolved from there," Matyjevich said of the Black Sheep's origins. "We hear of a charity and we push the money right back out."
"We basically gave parents of a sick child money for lodging and gas when their child was in the hospital, so then it just evolved into helping kids in need. We just try to help kids any way we can," Sergeant-at-Arms Larry Spathelf, Sr. continued.
"We have our meetings on Sunday. We start with a meal and then we do our general business and then we're done. We just figure out who we're going to help, Joe writes out the checks, and everyone goes home happy. It's a good feeling."
New members are typically brought in by other members and voted by majority into the group, with some coming from families the group has helped in the past. Their ranks include firefighters, police officers, mailmen, public works employees, businessmen, lawyers, chefs – men from all walks of life. And while they are strictly a male organization, they are quick to credit their girlfriends and wives with their ongoing support.
"The wives and the girlfriends do help out. They make the food, they sell the tickets, they'll watch our holes at the golf tournament, and they'll help get the prizes. They're not excluded, but it started as a group of guys and we've kept it that way as a private organization," Matyjevich clarified. "We wouldn't be here if they didn't say, ‘We know what you're doing, and it's a very good cause.'"
Their causes are also decided by a majority vote, and in addition to helping kids with illness or special needs, they've also donated money to cancer benefits, the Scranton Police Department's K-9 Unit, Little Leagues, those affected by house fires, and other charity organizations. Typically, though, they ask a family to write a letter to the group explaining their situation and the men read it and vote on it at their monthly meeting.
"Somehow the word gets out there that we do what we do. Someone will approach us or make a phone call to a member or a friend of a friend or sometimes you read something in the paper," Spathelf explained. "We'll sit here while somebody reads a letter and they'll be 33 guys crying."
"The guy reading will say, ‘I can't read it anymore,' and he passes it on to somebody else. An illness can pop up any time, but we're trying to do what we can," Matyjevich added.
"It's unbelievable. It's just heart-wrenching, but we're here to help families," Spathelf emphasized. "The families keep in touch with us. They let us know what's going on and how things have worked out."
"It is a financial burden on a family when a sick child is there, and that's the last thing we want them worrying about when they have to worry about their kid," member Dave Lesh said. "We try to help ease the burden that falls upon a family. It's something very little, but it's something."
Much of their funding comes from two annual fundraisers the Black Sheep hold: the Spring Fling at the Taylor Hose Company, which was held in April, and the Golf Tournament at Pine Hills Country Club, 140 S. Keyser Ave., Taylor, scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 25 at 1 p.m. Both events are in their ninth year.
"The money that the golfers pay takes care of the prizes and the golf fees, but the community and the local businesses donate money to us knowing what we do. Our members go out and reach out to them and the money we get from that is how we help the children. Our sponsors help us a great deal," Spathelf said.
"Once people find out what we do, they just seem to be always there when we need them. They're just a phone call away."
"The guy at Pine Hills said it's one of his bigger tournaments of the year, so our success rate is very good," Trustee Nick Azzarelli added.
Organizing the fling, with all its food and beverages donated by local residents and businesses, and the 36-team, 18-hole tournament with raffles and prizes is no easy task, but they find that every member comes through every time to make them ongoing successes.
"We do what it takes. Everyone in the organization rolls their sleeves up when it comes time to working the benefit, working the golf tournament, and going out there and looking for sponsors. We all do what we need to to make sure it is a success at the end," Matyjevich acknowledged.
"We have an outpouring of support. You can count on your fellow sheep to do what they said they were going to do…We've had people join the organization for what we did. We helped a son, a daughter, or a grandchild, and, in turn, they became members and they couldn't do enough for the organization."
Matyjevich noted that even the struggling economy has only had a "negligible" effect on their fundraising efforts.
"The families feel that (economic) hit too, but we're still able to help them," Lesh said.
"It's really been surprising the last couple years with the economy. The people have been great," Trustee Jack Hubshman agreed.
The group recently registered a web address and joined Facebook to increase awareness of their cause, and while their name may throw people off at first, Hubshman said the Black Sheep of West Scranton define themselves not by their moniker, but "by what we do."
"That name sticks out in people's heads," Azzarelli pointed out.
"Who would think that a bunch of guys calling themselves the Black Sheep would do so much for a charity? We just want to get the word out that we're here to help children," Spathelf said. "Basically, that's it. It makes us feel good."
"There's no greater feeling in the world," Hubshman insisted.
"When you get that letter saying ‘Thank you,' or ‘She's progressing,' or ‘He's progressing,' there is nothing like that," Lesh concluded.
What: Black Sheep of West Scranton 9th Annual Golf Tournament
Where: Pine Hills Country Club, 140 S. Keyser Ave., Taylor
When: Saturday, Aug. 25 at 1 p.m.
Cost: $320 per team, $25 per dinner-only guest, entry fee includes cart and green fees, lunch, dinner, gifts, flight prizes, and raffle ticket prizes
Info: 18 holes, four-man captain and crew format, limited to 36 teams, RSVP by Aug. 20, checks payable to the Black Sheep of West Scranton, 2225 Jackson St., Scranton, PA 18504
Contact: Nick Azzarelli at 570.241.3850 or Dave Lesh at 570.241.3640