Altruistic Dempster up for Clemente Award
Cubs pitcher's multiple endeavors touch the lives of many
CHICAGO -- Do you know what 22q is? Thousands of families across the country do now because of Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster.
Dempster's daughter, Riley, was diagnosed with 22q11.2 deletion (also known as DiGeorge syndrome) shortly after she was born on April 1, 2009. Internet searches for more information on the disorder were futile. DiGeorge syndrome has more than 180 symptoms, so imagine the confusion when your child has trouble swallowing or suffers heart failure or a speech impairment or a learning disability.
The Dempsters eventually found a doctor, got help and took action, creating the Ryan and Jenny Dempster Family Foundation to raise awareness of 22q, establish a network for families affected by it and support programs about it. And they are making an impact.
In 2010, the foundation's first year, Dempster was able to award $185,600 in grants to 14 charitable organizations. This July, more than 600 guests attended the second Strike Out 22q Casino Night at the Palmer House in Chicago and raised more than $310,000 for the foundation.
For his efforts, Dempster is the Cubs' Roberto Clemente Award nominee. It's the third time the Cubs pitcher has been nominated for the award, and the nomination is well deserved.
All 30 nominees have immersed themselves in the type of humanitarian and community efforts that distinguished the life of Clemente, a life that ended at age 38 on New Year's Eve 1972, when the plane he was using to deliver aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims crashed.
Fans will once again have the opportunity to participate in the selection of the national winner. They can cast votes for any of the 30 club nominees through Oct. 9.
The fan-ballot winner will be tallied as one vote among those cast by a special selection panel of baseball dignitaries and media members. The panel includes Commissioner Bud Selig and Vera Clemente, widow of the Hall of Fame right fielder.
Voting fans also will be automatically registered for a chance to win a trip for four to the 2011 World Series to see the national winner presented with the Roberto Clemente Award.
Dempster knew if he was having trouble getting answers about 22q, so were other families. Recent studies suggest one in every 2,000 births are affected by the disorder. This summer, the Dempster Foundation did its part to raise awareness. Michelle Breedlove Sells, the foundation's director of development, took part in a two-week tour in a 39-foot RV that started in Atlanta at a Cubs-Braves game, and included a stop at Chicago's Double-A affiliate in Kodak, Tenn. The response was overwhelming.
"Families kept saying, 'Thank you -- my child doesn't feel like he's alone anymore,'" Breedlove Sells said.
The stories of children on the Dempster Family Foundation website strike a chord with any parent. There's Gabriel, who had difficulty breathing shortly after he was born in October 2006, and Kylie, who would not eat and whose hands and feet turned blue after she was born in September 2008. There's Olivia, who had respiratory problems when she was 2 days old. And there's Kyla, born with five heart defects who was diagnosed with 22q shortly after her birth and whose father saw a story about Dempster's daughter on Cubs.com.
"That's one of the feathers we put in our cap is that we've done a good job of linking families who thought they were alone on an island," Breedlove Sells said.
During the tour, families could thank Dempster by sending a postcard that the foundation created.
"Everybody wanted to send one," Breedlove Sells said.
This year, the Dempster Foundation supported a five-night camp in Philadelphia for 22q kids that included meals and activities.
His daughter's situation gave the pitcher a specific cause. April 22, 2011, was "22q Day at the Ballpark" at Wrigley Field, and more than 150 kids and their families who either have the disorder or support the cause attended. For many of the kids, this was the first time they met someone who is dealing with the same symptoms.
The Dodgers and Braves joined in the fight, and dedicated a 22q day to raise awareness. Even the animals lended a paw or a wing. On May 22, 2011, 65 different zoos across nine countries on three continents named that day "22q at the Zoo -- World Awareness Day."
Dempster, 34, has not abandoned his other charitable projects. He knows how much fun it is to come to a ballgame and tries to share that with as many people as possible. Since 2006, his "Dempster's Dugout" charitable ticket program has given more than 2,500 kids a chance to watch a Cubs game. Dempster makes a point of meeting with the kids, signing autographs and posing for photos.
If the Cubs are home on Mother's Day, Dempster treats breast cancer survivors and their families to a game at Wrigley Field. On Father's Day, he invites family members of those serving in the military to watch a game.
This past June was special for Jamie Ellis and her family because of Dempster. Ellis had planned on taking her three children and her father-in-law to the Cubs game, courtesy of the pitcher, who hosted military families. Six days before the game, she got an unexpected phone call from her husband, Justin. He was coming home.
The Ellis children didn't know dad would be there for Father's Day until he walked in the door of their Eureka, Ill., home the night before, ending a 36-hour stretch of travel.
Dempster regularly shows his support for Cubs Care and Chicago Cubs Charities. He sponsors a Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) team every year; and frequently visits with Make-A-Wish patients who come to the ballpark. He participated in the first annual "Cubs Bricks and Ivy Gala," which raised more than $1.1 million dollars for Chicago Cubs Charities.
But his impact on 22q and increasing awareness can't be measured in dollars. The Dempster foundation now is one of the main sources for families dealing with DiGeorge syndrome. How much impact has he had? When Yankees pitcher Dave Robertson's wife did a Google search to help a 22q family in Tuscaloosa, Ala., which lost its house in a tornado, she found Dempster's foundation. And $22,000 raised from the auction sale of an autographed Babe Ruth baseball sold at Dempster's Casino Night will go to that Tuscaloosa family to help build a new home.
"Ryan goes the extra mile every single day," Breedlove Sells said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.