If you look closely at the hockey helmets of the 800 children in the HEROS program you may notice something new: a decal that resembles a pair of glasses. It may not seem like an obvious icon for a hockey program but the story behind that little sticker is how every one of our players pays tribute to one of our bravest HEROS.
K* is a HEROS participant from our East Vancouver chapter and this story is about a special bond between him and Mark Gage, one of our volunteers (see last month’s issue of Along the Boards for a profile on Mark). K’s parents are not present in his life at this time and he lives with his foster mother. Facing significant problems at school and in his personal life K was invited to enter HEROS a year earlier than most participants but, at the beginning, he found it challenging to align his choices with the four HEROS behaviours. There came a point when K needed to step back from HEROS to reassess and it only took a week for him to realize what he needed to do. He came to Mark, who works at K’s school, to say, “I need to be back in HEROS…HEROS is the only thing that is going to save me.”
Once K returned to the program, Mark saw a dramatic and positive change both on and off the ice. Mark observed K taking initiative and helping the kindergarten class in the lunchroom and on the playground, describing K as “everything you want a student to be.” Mark noticed that K is fortunate to have strong female figures in his life but that he was lacking a strong male role model. Mark decided that this was something that he wanted to take on and over the next few months he became more and more a part of K’s life – something that gave both of them great joy.
Things seemed to be back on track for K until one evening when Mark received a phone call from K’s foster mom, he had been experiencing seizures and had been admitted to the Children’s Hospital. Doctors had been unable to diagnose the cause of the seizures and placed him in an induced coma. Mark stepped up and was there for K and his foster mother in their darkest hours spending every evening at the hospital. It took 3 ½ months for doctors to determine the cause of K’s seizures and decided it was time to bring him out of his coma. Doctors were unsure if K would recover, there was a chance that he wouldn’t make it, but after 5 days K started to breathe on his own and eventually regained consciousness.
The road to recovery for K was long and arduous, he had to learn to walk and talk again but his HEROS family was there for him every step of the way with Mark at his side. The support our kids receive doesn’t end on the ice – as an added boost HEROS ambassador and Vancouver Canuck forward Sven Baertschi stopped in regularly to support him on his road to recovery and still checks in with K to this day.
Through this journey the hope was always there that K would play hockey again and in September that day arrived with his doctor clearing him for physical activity again. K was so excited about the upcoming season he peppered Mark with questions like would his equipment still fit, but when the big moment came to return to the ice, K only had one thought: Mark was his coach and he didn’t want to step back on the ice without him.
It is that moment that will live on in the memory for so many HEROS. Kevin Hodgson, Executive Director of HEROS says, “Understanding the importance of K’s return the HEROS players cleared the ice as this was Mark and K’s moment. As they left the ice players, coaches and volunteers cheered and applauded.”
Mark’s dedication to K doesn’t end after the whistle, it continues through his school and family life from camping trips to his hospital vigil. HEROS is so much more than a hockey program, it’s a community and it’s a family. The sticker on the helmet of our HEROS resembles K’s glasses, and is there to honor one of our own. In a moment of frustration or challenge it is a reminder of a peer who loves the game of hockey and brings such strength and bravery to his journey of recovery. A reminder that the impossible can be overcome when we do it together.
*Our HEROS participant is currently in the provincial care system so we are with holding their full name.