In June, New York's Mehdi Ballouchy, San Jose's Jason Hernandez, Chivas USA's Michael Lahoud and Chicago's Logan Pause visited St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – one of the premier pediatric cancer research centers in the world – as MLS Ambassadors to the Goals for St. Jude program, part of the league’s “Soccer Kicks Cancer” initiative.
The visit to see some of the sickest kids in the world stands in stark contrast to the experience of men who regularly soak in the adoration of cheering fans. But giving the patients at St. Jude's a reason to smile proved to be much more rewarding.
“To actually be [at St. Jude] in person really opened my eyes and made me realize how fortunate we are as athletes and people to take everyday things for granted,” Lahoud told cdchivasusa.com. “The ability to walk, the ability to see, we take those things for granted every day when we wake up. To be in an environment where a lot of young kids don’t have those abilities is really humbling.”
Their visit, and their support in the fight against cancer, has earned Ballouchy, Hernandez, Lahoud and Pause the MLS W.O.R.K.S. Humanitarian of the Month Award for September. The month is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
For Hernandez, the motivation to support cancer research hits closer to home. A friend of his lost a child early due to pediatric brain cancer. Hernandez now sits on the committee of a charity based out of New York, and the chance to visit St. Jude's provided him with a chance to involve MLS in his work against cancer.
“To be able to interact and connect with these youths who are going through a terrible illness and really fighting for their lives, it was tremendous,” Hernandez says. “Anything that I can bring to them, the little joy that I got to bring to them, they gave me ten times over.”
Pause agrees. “It’s one of those things where I feel like we as players got way more out of it than the families [of the patients] did," he says. "Anything that we can do to help is fantastic.”
St. Jude's covers the cost of care beyond what insurance pays for patients that have it, and cover the full cost for those families that don’t. Players commented on their admiration for the fight that the kids showed in their battle against cancer, and were happy to be able to join in.
“Children from around the world, if they have cancer, they fly them in,” Ballouchy told MLSsoccer.com in June. “They go to school there, prom there.”
“Families don’t pay a dime,” Pause adds. “These families and children have gone through so much as it is. To relieve that financial strain is also special to see.”
Lahoud, Pause and Hernandez reminisced fondly about their time on the ball with some of the patients. Lahoud joked that the kids quickly took a kick-around game from “friendly” to “intense.”
“For 10, 15 minutes, we were all just soccer players,” Hernandez recalls. “Not just professional athletes coming to visit someone who’s going through a tough time – we were all just on a team, trying to play and win a game.”