When it comes to captaining the Earthquakes defense, Jason Hernandez is unyielding in his efforts to give nothing away to his opponents. However, when it comes to the time after the floodlights fade to black, he flips the switch to his on-the-field stinginess and generously pours forth an off-the-field compassion and humanitarianism for those fighting the scourge of pediatric cancer. Recently recognized by Major League Soccer’s community outreach initiative, MLS W.O.R.K.S., for his charitable efforts, Hernandez has a very personal reason for his involvement in the cause.
“One thing I have experienced that maybe most guys haven’t is that I have a close friend of mine whose son passed away prematurely of childhood cancer, so any opportunity I get to contribute to do this kind of work hits close to home,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez, who sits on the committee of the Cristian Rivera Foundation, a New York based charity named for his friend’s son, has been very active in the community helping to educate others about childhood cancer while also donating his time as a goodwill ambassador to local pediatric hospitals.
“It’s really an amazing as well as an inspirational experience,” said Hernandez of interacting with the young hospital patients. “I enjoy that kind of stuff. It’s very rewarding and really, really a lot of fun to meet and interact with the kids.”
When President Barack Obama declared that September 2011 would be National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Major League Soccer committed to its own campaign of awareness called the MLS W.O.R.K.S. Soccer Kicks Cancer program. In conjunction with franchises and players in the league, MLS is stepping forward to create sustainable charitable programs across the country that will leave a lasting legacy.
Here in the Bay Area, the San Jose Earthquakes and MLS W.O.R.K.S. have teamed up with the Starlight Children’s Foundation to bring mobile gaming and entertainment units to the pediatric cancer wards of three local hospitals. To introduce the consoles, which should provide hours of fun and distraction to children that are often isolated from the outside world due to their condition, a number of Earthquakes players paid visits to the hospitals to interact with and play games with the children patients.
“It says a lot about MLS and the Earthquakes to be stepping up and engaging in these types of partnerships,” Hernandez said. “I am honored to be a part of something like that, and am more than happy to come out and spend some time with these kids.”
One of the recipient hospitals was the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, where Hernandez and his central defensive teammate Bobby Burling spent a recent afternoon test-driving a new Nintendo Wii gaming console with some of the young patients.
“To the see the kids’ eyes light up and their smiles, and then to relate to them playing video games is very rewarding,” Burling said as he went about meeting and greeting as many of the young patients as he could. “They are so happy to have you here, and I’m happy to be here. It just feels great to come out and interact with the kids a little bit. The Starlight Foundation donation is a very cool thing for these kids.”
For many of the kids that are suffering from cancer, their stay in the hospital can stretch for many weeks, with much of that time spent in isolation in order to prevent contamination from infection. The new Starlight Foundation fun center consoles were designed to be mobile so that they could be brought directly to the bedsides of these unfortunate children and provide them with a seemingly simple but very meaningful distraction from their daily routine. Jacob Lore, who as the hospital’s Recreation Therapist and Child Life Specialist helps the children understand their conditions and treatments, was quick to note how important the consoles would be to his patients’ overall wellbeing.
“We have been waiting for years to get some portable game systems in this unit of the hospital,” explained Lore, “so something like this helps fill that need for kids that are unable to go to the main playroom to have some entertainment directly in their rooms. Having something available that is more interactive than just television will help to lift their spirits.”
In addition to introducing the gaming consoles to the kids of the ward, Hernandez and Burling went room to room to meet some of the children and sign autographs and distribute t-shirts and souvenir player cards. When they returned to the main playroom, the two Earthquakes defenders took on the challenge of facing some of the kids in a game of Mario Kart on the new consoles. It was quickly apparent that while they are both elite professionals when it comes to playing soccer, they were no match for the kids at video games.
“Yeah, I’ll tell you what,” exclaimed Hernandez. “The children these days; to say they are technology-savvy would be an understatement. In my day there were a few video games we had down, but today I was outmatched for sure.”
Burling, who is also Hernandez’s roommate, laughingly interjected that he knew the kids would come out the winners. “I’ve never seen him pick up a controller once, so when I saw him jump on there I knew he was going to get smoked!”
As the afternoon visit by the Earthquakes drew to a close, and the kids reluctantly went back to their rooms, Hernandez and Burling were all smiles at having a great time with the kids. Meanwhile, Lore summed up the gratitude that he and the rest of the pediatric cancer ward staff felt for the charitable gifts their received.
“It was so amazing of the Earthquakes and MLS being able to put this together,” Lore said thankfully. “The Starlight fun centers will be very much appreciated by the kids we have right now. And over the course of the year, we hope hundreds of our kids will get a chance to take advantage of the system.”
Both Hernandez and Burling promised that they would return in the future to interact with the kids — maybe Hernandez will have had a chance to improve on his gaming skills by then — and to always carry a compassion for those children suffering from cancer. Unlike some professional athletes, the trappings of inflated egos and blinding fame are not an issue for these two Earthquakes teammates, since playing soccer in this country keeps you rooted to a regular lifestyle.
“For us, we can come here and really relate on a personal level as normal people,” shared Hernandez. “We might play professional soccer for a living, but we are just regular guys first. The very basic feeling in life of caring and taking care of others is something that hits close to home. Having that humanity is something a lot of us appreciate and will always be a part of our lives.”
For the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital cancer unit, the combined effort of the San Jose Earthquakes, MLS W.O.R.K.S., and the Starlight Foundation to provide the gaming and entertainment units will hopefully in some small way help the staff contribute to the patients’ recoveries and well-being. And for all the families and their children, the simple and ongoing acts of humanity and caring such as those put forth by Hernandez and Burling will always be appreciated.