At a young age, Rich Bulan learned a clear and everlasting lesson from his father.
“No matter how bad you think things are or what’s going on in your life,” he was told, “there’s always somebody out there who has it worse. If you can do something to help, you should help.”
It’s a message Bulan, the coach of New Canaan’s girls ice hockey team, has carried with him throughout his life, and has tried to instill in his players.
Inspired by their coach and the stories of his family, the Rams girls hockey players last week started a fundraiser for the New Canaan Food Pantry, which provides perishable and non-perishable items for those in need.
In the year 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, the Rams have found that lending a helping hand is more important than ever.
“We want to give back, not only because it’s the holiday season, but also because things have been so challenging with COVID and people getting laid off from jobs and having the ability to get food to provide for their families,” senior co-captain McKenna Harden said. “Everyone wants to help from their own hearts, and I think that’s the best part of it.”
Harden and her fellow senior co-captains Courtney O’Connell and Blythe Novick helped get the fundraiser started and, less than a week after a GoFundMe page was set up, the team has raised nearly $3,000, more than tripling their original goal of $750.
“It’s incredible,” O’Connell said. “We set that goal (of $750) and we didn’t know if we’d even make that, let alone triple it. We’re just so thankful to everyone.”
Bulan said his dad Richard, who passed away in 2009, would love what his team has done.
“My dad would think this is so cool,” Bulan said. “Here you have a chance to do something for people who are less fortunate, while we’re sitting around waiting to play hockey. We’ve all had pretty good lives, some hardships, but more ups and downs. It’s great that they’re doing something to help the less fortunate.”
Richard Bulan, the coach’s father, was a fan of the Rams back in the 2000s, coming to watch games and quite often talking to the players before games.
The charitable works of his family and that message have become a big part of what New Canaan is doing this winter, with practices and games on hold until Jan. 19.
“That’s an inspiration, especially coming from someone I admire so much,” Novick said of the Rams’ coach. “Bulan has the biggest heart and would do anything for any of us, so hearing that from someone like him is incredibly inspiring. He is so passionate about giving, which drives us. It should be fundamental in all of our lives.”
The Rams are hoping the fundraiser will help lift some spirits during a difficult holiday season, when the pandemic is keeping people apart.
“It’s the holidays and this year’s been so hard for so many families,” O’Connell said. “This time is supposed to be for everyone to get together for the holidays, but they can’t this year. There are a lot of people out there who aren’t as fortunate this year. We really wanted to make an impact that way.”
The captains found inspiration from their coach and in turn, he pointed to the way his father Richard and mother Grace, who were married for 52 years, lived their lives with charity.
“My father always preached to me and my brother (Gregg) to make a difference,” he said. “Whether it was helping one person or many people. He would tell us ‘don’t waste going through this wonderful journey called life without reaching out to others.’ The things my father did to help others while trying to raise his own family was amazing to watch.”
Richard Bulan was a postal worker for 51 years, and was also a part-time employee of the Stamford Advocate for 38 years.
According to Rich Bulan, his father had a tough upbringing, but his time in the US Army gave him discipline and taught him about life.
When Rich and his brother Gregg were young, they learned that their father was helping people in their neighborhood and along his postal route, doing things such as cutting grass, painting, or working on gutters for elderly people and others in need. It was an eye-opening moment for the brothers, who were eventually recruited to help as well.
“We did not have a lot growing up,” Bulan said. “But that’s not how we felt. What we did as a family more than made up for what we lacked. Nothing in this world could replace the feeling we got watching people who had nothing smile for a day.”
Richard Bulan initially came to New Canaan’s games to see star Maggie Westfal, a 2005 graduate of NCHS. He quickly became a fan of the Rams.
“He would come to games and talk to the team,” coach Bulan said. “They loved to hear from him, and he came to team dinners. He was amazed at how mature and gracious the kids were.”
Christmas, 2012, was the first holiday season coach Bulan had without his parents — his mother had died in the spring — but his family was lifted by remembering the legacy of giving they had left behind.
“I’ve never seen a couple more devoted to each other in my entire life,” Rich’s wife Anne said at the time. “It was almost heavenly.”
New Canaan’s girls hockey players are continuing their fundraising efforts through the holiday season and perhaps beyond. For the moment, the focus is on food and the New Canaan Food Pantry, but it could extend further, as there will likely be a secondary charity to raise funds for, and a clothing drive for winter is also being considered.
“Going into winter, the two more important things people desperately need right now are food and clothing,” Novick said. “We’re going to focus primarily on the food aspect right now, and with all the additional money, we’ll find a way to divide it and then we’ll do a portion (for clothing) because both are vital.”
The players will likely get together in cohorts, buy food with the funds raised, and then deliver it, in what has become a bonding experience.
“It really has helped us stay together, keep talking and has given us something to work toward even though we don’t have games in front of us,” O’Connell said. “We’re trying to help others and it really has brought the team closer together in this moment of uncertainty.”
While Bulan made some suggestions for the fundraiser, he made it clear that the captains and everyone on the team made the decisions, laid the foundation, and have followed through to reach their goals.
“It’s very inspirational, not only with how he grew up with always giving back, but also how he wants us to learn the same thing and wants us to come together as a team to do it,” Harden said. “He also wants us to have that sense of camaraderie to do it through ourselves. The great thing was that everyone on our team helped spread the word through social media or texts to family members.”
In an email sent to alumni, parents and players, Bulan emphasized how much pride he has in the players and the program.
“I know that each and every one of us has had to deal with something terrible in our lives and we have overcome, picked ourselves up, and kept going,” he said. “It is what makes human beings so special — that will to pick ourselves up and battle through the worst of times.
“I am so very proud of the initiative these girls have shown to help others who are in need.”