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What Dreams Are Made Of

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Zach Strief’s charitable foundation helps local children be all they can be
Zach Strief, offensive tackle for the Saints, grew up in Ohio and went to college in Chicago. He now calls New Orleans home. Strief’s Dream Big Foundation raises money to support local children’s charities. Since 2006, it has raised more than $250,000. On Thursday, September 30, Strief will host the Big Night Out fundraiser, a chance to ?mingle with Saints players and support a good cause. Tickets are only $40, a price even fans without box seats can afford.

How did the Dream Big Foundation get started?
We started it in 2006, which was my rookie year with the Saints. At first all the money was going to the athletic program at my old high school in Cincinnati, which had been unfunded due to budget issues. When I met my wife, Mandy, who is from St. Rose, she took over the foundation. We’ve since moved everything down here. We always knew the foundation would work best in New Orleans.

Why did you decide to focus on children’s charities?

I like to work with high school kids, junior high, even kids who just graduated from high school. There are a lot of charities that focus on young children, and I think that’s wonderful. I feel, though, that those kids, once they reach a certain age, are kind of given up on. We like to be involved in groups that teach those older kids how to make themselves better, how to give themselves a better life and a different path. That’s why we partnered with Café Reconcile for our first big event last year.

What are some of the things that New Orleans children need?

You see a ton of after-school stuff getting shut down. A lot of my teammates have invested in getting athletic programs back. That was something that I had and I never even thought twice about. After school, I went and played a sport. And I never considered that there were places where you couldn’t do that. Obviously we consider it important, because we ended up being a professional in something that happened after school. But there are also skills you learn for life by participating in anything, whether it’s choir, theater, a sport or a club.

What was your childhood like in Cincinnati?

I came from a family that provided everything I could ever want. My parents taught me from a young age how important it was to give back and do things for other people. And then I was fortunate to marry somebody that was raised the same way. What I get to do is such a unique thing. We’re so blessed. Part of the deal of that is that you’re expected, and I think required, to give back.

How common is it for NFL players to be involved in local charities?

There is a tremendous amount of giving that happens from NFL players. I think, unfortunately, it’s not advertised very much. For some reason it’s more exciting to hear about the bad stuff than the good stuff. However, the connection between the players and the city here in New Orleans is unlike anywhere else. The number of things that we do in the community is probably pretty unique.

You grew up in Ohio and went to college at Northwestern in Chicago. What were your first impressions of New Orleans?

Obviously there is a huge cultural difference between Chicago and New Orleans. I don’t know that there is anywhere like New Orleans. The weather was a big adjustment for me. The breeze off Lake Michigan went away. I was coming out to my car, it hadn’t rained all night, but for some reason my car was covered in water. And coming here at first was tough. Not because of the city, but because of the circumstances. I came the year after Katrina.

How do you feel about the city now?

It became my home. Marrying Mandy contributed a lot to that. I have a family here now. That has given me a new perspective on the city. I understand the city better. It’s my home in the off-season. It will be home forever, regardless of what happens with the Saints. I wish I could play here my whole life. I don’t think that’s going to happen, because that’s the nature of the game. The weather doesn’t bother me anymore. I also talk a little bit more like my wife than I used to. I’m becoming a native.

The Big Night Out fundraiser takes place at Generations Hall, 319 Andrew Higgins Dr., on September 30 from 7 to 10 p.m. To learn more about the event or the Dream Big Foundation, visit www.dreambignola.com.