Warm Hearts on the Ice

The-Doolittle-Family-left-to-right-Hunter-John-Jackson-Erica-and-IsabellaWhen Jackson Doolittle was born, he spent the night in the neonatal intensive care unit because doctors couldn’t clear his lungs.

“It was frightening,” said his mother, Erica.  “It seemed like an eternity before Jackson’s APGAR score moved off of zero.  His breathing was seriously impaired.”

When he was just 18 months old, Jackson was admitted to the hospital again, spending about a week on the 5th floor of Albany Med for treatment of chronic pneumonia and asthma.  During his stay, Erica and her husband, John, took turns sleeping on the couches in the waiting room, just steps away from their son.

After a few days, John wandered across the hall to the Ronald McDonald House (RMH) Family Room, a comfortable space where families can find respite and support while remaining close to their ill child.  Over the course of his son’s hospital stay, John would visit the Family Room occasionally for a change of scenery, or to borrow a movie, just to relieve the stress and monotony of the hospital environment.

When Jackson was finally discharged, John’s thoughts turned to the families and children who remained at the hospital.

“I remember being really moved by the realization that we were  finally able to go home…it was a powerful moment,” John said.  “I knew then that I wanted to do something to ensure that the Ronald McDonald House Family Room would remain a haven for others dealing with their child’s health crisis – I just didn’t know what.”

The-Doolittle-family-and-members-of-the-Shaker-High-Art-Department-Deliver-Pumpkins-to-the-RMHAn avid ice hockey player for 44 years, John regularly traveled to Lake Placid to compete in hockey tournaments.  After one such tournament, John started  wondering – why not start an adult hockey tournament in the Capital Region to benefit the Ronald McDonald House?  He presented his idea to the House’s  Executive Director, Jeff Yule, and Chris Turner, Corporate Relations & Events Director, who embraced the project enthusiastically.

With the help of friends Michael Kelly and Jake Dumesnil, the Capital Cup for Kids was born. Organizers immediately went to work recruiting teams, designing a logo and ordering t-shirts and gift bags for the players.  “I also give a great deal of credit to Jeff and Chris for the success of the tournament.  From day one, they provided all the support we needed – and more,” John remarked.

The first year of the tournament, four hockey teams raised $9,000 for  the “House that Love Built.”

Encouraged by the response, John, an art teacher at Shaker High School, designed a website for the tournament.  In its second year, eight teams competed in the tournament, bringing in $27,000 for RMHC.  This year, the tournament celebrated its 5th Anniversary, hosting 12 teams whose members raised over a whopping $66,000.  Additionally, there is now a House League that competes from October to April, and there are plans afoot to add a women’s division to the 2015 tournament.

“The real story here,” John said, “is how the 120+ hockey players who now compete in the tournament have been impacted by the mission of the House and its residents, like honorary team captain Chase Foley, who is battling leukemia.”

This year, for example, the hockey players (especially J.D. Dunavin) hosted a bone marrow match drive during the Capital Cup that drew more than 30 registrants.

“The tournament has inspired other teams to  develop their own ideas, as well,” Doolittle noted.  Bill Hollister, one of the hockey players who happens to work for Amtrak, ended up spearheading his company’s Rails to Recovery program in honor of Brianna Chase, a teenager who has stayed at the House with her mom.

RMHC had been helping the family with the cost of train fare to and from Sloane Kettering Cancer Center where Brianna was receiving treatment for leukemia.  The program provides discounted rail fare on state-supported Amtrak Empire Service trains for qualifying passengers and families traveling to undergo treatment for life-threatening medical conditions.  Yet another player is thinking about raising funds by adapting the tournament format for a charity soccer competition.

“The spirit of the House is definitely catching on,” John remarked.

For the Doolittles, the tournament is not the sole focus of their efforts to give back to the community.  Jackson, now 8 years old, along with 6-year-old twins, Hunter and Isabella, periodically join their parents to deliver “wish list” items to the House and to cook dinner for the families staying there.  As a first-grade teacher at Boght Hills Elementary School, Erica organizes an annual heart sale and wish list drive at all the elementary schools in Colonie, and John does the same at Shaker High.  For them, it’s all a labor of love.