Rivermen connecting with the community at CHOI

by Beth Alderson || AHL On The Beat Archive

peo-choi_200.jpg In the halls of the Children’s Hospital of Illinois, patients wander. Families wait. Nurses and staff come and go. And from time to time, a group of Peoria Rivermen hockey players come to brighten the day for everyone.

As four hockey players made their way through the hospital pulling a little red wagon full of cookies, passers-by couldn’t help but smile. They made their way from room to room passing out treats, not forgetting to stop and make offers to the staff bustling by along the way.

For nearly 10 years the Rivermen and the Children’s Hospital of Illinois have been partners in the community. For the Rivermen, CHOI is the largest philanthropy the team works with. Throughout the season, events are planned to benefit the hospital. All proceeds from jersey auctions are donated to the Children’s Hospital, and this year alone there have been three auctions raising approximately $10,000. Raffle book fundraisers are also given to groups looking to raise money.

Thanks to the team’s ongoing cooperation with CHOI, other Rivermen affiliates facilitate events for the Children’s Hospital as well. Meliss’ Beauty and Grooming Source does haircuts for charity each year, and the Kaufman Wellness Center offers spinal checks and back massages twice a year at the team’s games.

To the Children’s Hospital, the Rivermen bring hope. The players make monthly trips down to the hospital to visit with children and their families. Demetra Gaines, the special visit coordinator for the Children’s Hospital, plans each visit and determines what types of activities the players will be participating in.

“Just the fact that we have the Rivermen, who are such a big deal in this area, coming in once a month gives the kids something to look forward to,” said Gaines. “We have a lot of kids who are in here frequently and this gives them hope. It gives them excitement. And that might not seem like a whole lot, but to these kids, who are going through bad times and illnesses, a little hope will work wonders.”

This month, the players decorated cookies and shared them throughout the Children’s Hospital. Faces lit up as they entered rooms, and staff smiled to see them talking and joking with the kids.

“We love to see the reaction on their faces, and to know we’re making them happy,” said team captain Aaron MacKenzie. “Parents are grateful we’re there, too. It makes us feel great to make a difference.”

“The guys are so down to earth,” Gaines shared. “We’ve had kids paint the players’ faces and just fool around with them. It’s a way of letting the kids see that even though the players do have these well-known positions, they can still crawl around on the floor and decorate a cookie and play like kids.”

In the Rivermen front office, these visits are coordinated through Lisa Broadhurst, director of game operations and community relations. The team is given a sign-up sheet prior to the trip, and about four or five players go each month. Broadhurst escorts the players to the hospital and brings tickets, vouchers, and other giveaways to distribute to the children, their parents, and the staff at the Children’s Hospital.

peo-choi_200.jpg “It just really brightens up their psyche. They get so excited to see the guys in uniform,” gushed Broadhurst. “You can really see the change in the kids before they see the guys and after.”

The activities each month are chosen by Gaines. In December, the players made hot cocoa and spread holiday cheer. In February, valentines were given out by the Rivermen. And while it may not seem like the biggest thing in the world, this small gesture from such big people means the world to the afflicted children and parents.

“The parents just can’t say enough,” said Broadhurst. “And the kids are just in awe. One kid rushed his surgery so he wouldn’t miss the players’ visit. And another little girl spent so much time getting ready to see them: she bought a new dress and did her hair and everything. She was just thrilled.”

The patients in the Children’s Hospital come from all over Central Illinois. It is the third largest pediatric hospital in Illinois and the only full service tertiary hospital in central Illinois. The 127-bed facility offers exclusive pediatric programs, services, and treatments. Each year, the hospital sees over 5,000 admissions, 2,000 newborn deliveries, and 16,000 emergency department visits.

The organization couldn’t be more pleased with their unique connection with the Rivermen.

“Our relationship is just awesome,” raved Gaines. “I know I can personally call down and talk to someone in the office whenever we need something, and they accommodate us without hesitation. And not only this, but they are putting funds into our hospital so we can buy more toys and equipment for the children. It all makes a big difference.”

“Sometimes it’s easy to forget when you’ve been playing for so long what kind of impact you can have on kids,” said Rivermen defenseman Alex Brooks. “It’s always worth it to see the smiles and the joy in every room we visit.”

And so the Peoria Rivermen will continue to spread that joy and make a difference in the lives of families at the Children’s Hospital of Illinois for years to come.