Their day in the sun
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When 13-year-old Jack Koehn walked onto the field of Kinnick Stadium with legendary Hawkeye football coach Hayden Fry in September 2009, there was no denying the day would be one to remember.
“He made the whole stadium know how excited he was,” says Jack’s mom, Julie Ruden of Mount Vernon. “He was jumping, waving his arms. He was very excited to be there.”
That day — Sept. 5, 2009 — Jack walked onto the field as the first Kid Captain, a program developed as a partnership between University of Iowa Children’s Hospital and the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Now entering its fourth year, the Kid Captain program has become a widely recognized part of every Hawkeye football game. Each Kid Captain receives a commemorative game jersey and has his or her story highlighted during the football season. In addition, home game captains spend an hour on the sideline before “their” game and are introduced at midfield prior to the coin flip. All of the Kid Captains receive special treatment during the annual Hawkeye Kids Day.
The nomination period for the 2012 Kid Captains opens March 19. For more information about the program or to nominate a child, visit www.uichildrens.org/kidcaptain.
The Kid Captain program was designed to tell the stories of determination, strength, and hope of the children cared for at UI Children’s Hospital and their families.
Cheryl Hodgson, manager of marketing services for UI Health Care, worked with Chuck Schroeder, general manager of Hawkeye Sports Properties, a property of Learfield Sports, at the University of Iowa, to create the program in spring 2009 with plans of having it ready by that year’s football season.
“We wanted, first, to find something positive for patients and their families, something that they would remember, and to also help explain all the things we can do for children here at the hospital. There’s no reason anyone should have to leave the state to find exceptional care for their child — we have that right here,” Hodgson says.
“With Kid Captain, children who may be unable to play sports because of their medical conditions are the sports hero for the day,” she says.
Schroeder says he enjoys being part of the Kid Captain “team.”
“It has been an absolute honor to be part of the Kid Captain program,” he says. “Frankly it’s hard to describe the emotions you feel when you meet the families for the first time. The strength these families have and their commitment to their child touches my heart. Each personal situation is unique, but the commitment to the child doesn’t change.”
Kicking off the campaign
That first year, a committee of doctors, nurses, marketing and media relations representatives, and other hospital personnel read 350 nominations.
“The very first story we received was from a mother who told of her child’s health issues and how much the family had been through — it brought me to tears,” Hodgson says. “I took the nomination to UI Children’s Hospital leadership and said that if this is the kind of stories we’re going to get, it’s going to be very hard to choose.”
Nominations come from the child’s parents or legal guardians and include information about what brought them to UI Children’s Hospital. Many are children with chronic health issues, but also those who have been injured in accidents or have faced other challenges.
In the case of Jack Koehn, the first Kid Captain, doctors discovered he was hydrocephalic while his mother was still pregnant, and it was determined he would have a shunt surgically placed immediately after his birth, to relieve the buildup of fluid on his brain. Right after he was born, however, Jack was diagnosed with a severe case of hemophilia, which made surgery even more difficult.
Over the years Jack became “a regular” in pediatric neurosurgery, endocrinology, the hemophilia clinic, and dentistry at UI Children’s Hospital.
“These kids have faced things that most adults have not,” Hodgson says. “Some of them have had 10 surgeries before they are even 10 years old.”
From that list of initial nominations the committee must pare the nominations down to a final 13. It’s not an easy task, Hodgson says.
“The nominations are incredible; it’s truly a privilege to read the stories families choose to share with us. As a parent myself, reading what these families have been through is often hard, but makes me truly thankful for this hospital,” she says. “It’s extremely difficult to narrow it down because each of the kids are so deserving.”
Scoring more points each year
Each year the program becomes just a little bigger than the year before, Hodgson says.
“Our team is inspired by the families we meet, and push ourselves to identify new things we can add each year,” she says.
Schroeder helps find ways to help the program grow.
“Each year we evaluate the program and it’s not a discussion of, ‘Are we going to do the Kid Captain again,’ it’s a discussion on how do we make the Kid Captain experience better? How do we take it to the next level? When everyone is committed to the same end goal it’s pretty special what can be accomplished.”
Kids Day activities were added the second year, and last year large banners featuring each Kid Captain’s picture lined Hawkins Drive leading up to Kinnick Stadium. Away game captains and their families were invited to attend one of the Hawkeye home games last year.
Hodgson says she knew Kid Captain would have an impact on the families, but she said she’s sometimes surprised at just how much.
For Jack Koehn, now 16, the day he served as Kid Captain is still the best day of his life.
“It’s still the biggest thing that’s ever happened to him,” mom Julie Ruden says. “He still remembers everything he felt, from finding out about it to being on that field.”
Samantha Terrill is a marketing intern for UI Health Care and is starting her second year of work with the Kid Captain program. She said Kid Captain has become a big part of her life.
“Kid Captain is such a wonderful program,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to give something back to these children who have all been through such tough times. We had such great support from the community last year and my hope for the future would be to continue conveying the hospital’s mission of ‘Changing Medicine, Changing Kids’ Lives.’ Those words mean so much more when you’re talking to a child who might not be with us today if not for UI Children’s Hospital.”