UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. – When Mehdi Ballouchy walked into St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., last Monday, a young boy in the multipurpose room immediately recognized the Red Bulls midfielder.
Flanked by Chivas USA’s Michael Lahoud, San Jose’s Jason Hernandez and the Chicago Fire’s Logan Pause, Ballouchy entertained cancer patients at the hospital by bringing the world’s game to the them for a day. One young boy in particlular knew all the MLS stars by name and couldn’t wait to meet them.
Ballouchy couldn’t wait for the hospital visit, either.
The midfielder commonly makes requests to do such public appearances since joining the Red Bulls in September. Ballouchy said that Christina Giunta, New York's client and community services manager, always lets him know whenever the team has a children’s hospital visit. He'll be there every time he can.
His work with children is so extensive that he has been named a league ambassador and was granted a leave of absence from the team last week to make the visit. The trip to Memphis was supposed to take place in the preseason, but because of the Red Bulls' heavy training schedule, it was postponed till last Monday.
St. Jude is an extensive facility and one of the best in the world.
“Children from around the world, if they have cancer, they fly them in,” Ballouchy said. “They go to school there, prom there.”
The hospital is run on charity and no public funds, according to Ballouchy.
While on the visit, Moroccan-born Ballouchy interacted with several young people from his home country, an opportunity he said was touching for him. He also learned that two St. Jude hospitals recently opened in the North African nation.
And because of the global population at the hospital, the visiting soccer players were a big hit. Besides the one boy who knew all the MLS players by name, there were others who were big MLS and soccer fans. They watch the games and play as much soccer as they can.
“You’d be surprised how big soccer is with the kids,” Ballouchy said.
The reception was warm as the children and teenagers watched the players do tricks and play kickaround games with the patients.
“It is something humbling for me," Ballouchy said. “These kids go through chemo. For us to go in there and play games with them, it is special.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer