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Philadelphia Flyers exec Valerie Camillo and 94-year-old Harvey Ballen have known each other’s voices for three years. This week, they met for the very first time.
Camillo, president of business operations for the hockey team and Wells Fargo Center, got to know Ballen, a resident of the Horsham Center for Jewish Life in Montgomery County, through a virtual “pen pal” program the team started early in the pandemic, when senior living centers were closed to physical visitors, and residents were often confined to their rooms.
For Camillo and Ballen, it opened the door to a close friendship.
“Harvey was one of the number one things in my life that I count as a blessing from that time,” Camillo said — an “unexpected friend at an unexpected time in an unexpected place.”
Ballen is a lifelong Philadelphian, an Army veteran, a father, and the former owner of nearly 10 hoagie shops throughout Center City, including several Blimpie locations and a few non-franchises. He’s well-traveled, and enjoys sharing travelogues with his friends.
He moved to the Horsham Center in North Wales in January 2020 after his wife passed away. A few months later, COVID lockdowns began in the United States.
“Initially, I was locked down, and it was kind of depressing,” he told Billy Penn. “And then I got this call from Valerie … once or twice a month, we would have these telephone calls. And I felt that I had really almost a family member — not a family friend, but a family member.”
Some other residents at the center also joined the Flyers Phone-Linemates program, opting in for regular check-ins over Zoom or the phone. Several dozen Comcast Spectacor staffers participated in the program, which started in April 2020 and continued over several months during the quarantine days.
The initiative was borne out of Flyers employees’ desire to help, Camillo said. They’d originally planned to volunteer at a food bank, but that ended up not being possible, so they brainstormed on how they could best serve some of the most isolated.
Though the program was designed to cheer up seniors, Camillo joked that her calls with Ballen were like “free therapy.”
They discussed “all the topics you’re not supposed to talk about,” like religion and politics, Camillo said, along with other things like family, or the eras Ballen had lived through.
“He … talked to me about World War II, talked about the Civil Rights Movement, talked about Israel, just about so many different things,” she said. “And it gave me calm, like we can get through this. This is weird, but this too shall pass.”
The fruits of their friendship extended beyond just the two of them. Camillo told her parents all about her conversations with Ballen and the wisdom he’d passed along to her. And Ballen’s children heard lots about Camillo from their dad, too.
Ballen and Camillo were all smiles on Tuesday at the Horsham Center, as they came face to face for the first time. So were Sheila and Toby, Ballen’s daughters who attended the gathering.
At the long-time-coming meetup, Ballen and his daughters reminisced about going to the Flyers parade after the team won the Stanley Cup in the 1970s. Camillo gave each family member a bag of Flyers swag, and everyone shared some pastries as they sat and talked.
Throughout the meeting, the pair expressed appreciation for each other.
“I was always amazed that a woman in this position, with such responsibility, would take the time to give me the call,” Ballen said. “I never could get over how she could do that.”
“I was getting probably more out of it than you were,” Camillo responded. “It was something to look forward to.”
This story and headline have been updated to clarify the title of Valerie Camillo; she is president of business operations for the Philadelphia Flyers and Wells Fargo Center.