As a group of kids and their families gathered in the newly designed, upscale Delta Club of Madison Square Garden eagerly awaiting the evening’s Rangers game, Paul Curtis was making his way to the ice. He stopped to greet the kids and families with hugs and high-fives. He knew all the children by name and asked how everyone was feeling.
“You didn’t write me back on Facebook!” one kid playfully teased.
Paul is a hardy English bloke with a sweet, crooked smile and an oversized Rangers coat. He came to New York on holiday some 30 years ago and never left. His domain is the ice at Madison Square Garden; Paul is one of three Zamboni drivers for the Garden, along with Al and Jack. Everyone is on a first name basis.
“Al and Jack are the same, too. Kids love ‘em,” Paul chuckled.
Paul is friends with all the kids on Facebook and they follow each other on Twitter. “I’ve just got to know them over the years,” he said. “They’ve got so much hardship, but they get treated really well here.”
Paul exited towards the arena accompanied by a chorus of goodbyes; it was time for his final trip to smooth the ice before warm-ups began. As Paul completed his pregame task, the five kids performed a ritual of their own. They gathered in a huddle, hands in the center, and started a “Let’s Go Rangers” chant in the lounge. Busy vendors and ushers joined in, clapping as they walked by.
Passing hallways lined with framed images of renowned performers and athletes, the kids and their families headed to two reserved, refurbished suites. The lavish boxes were complete with chicken fingers, pizza, pigs in blankets, cookies, televisions, and most importantly, an unobstructed view of the game. There was ample space in the suites for parents and siblings to attend, as well.
As the lights dimmed for the starting lineups, the kids’ eyes grew wide. They all anticipated the drop of the puck to that perfectly glistening ice. They had been looking forward to this moment for days.
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The Garden of Dreams Foundation, established in 2006, is a non-profit organization with the goal of making “dreams come true for children facing obstacles” according to its mission statement. Through the Rangers, Knicks, Liberty, MSG Entertainment and MSG Network, the foundation works to bring smiles to children’s faces by hosting various events and connecting those dealing with challenging circumstances. The foundation’s reach is widespread, touching 250,000 families since its launch with more than 500 events each year. Garden of Dreams sponsors various activities including hospital visits, casino nights, comedy nights, talent shows, telethons, and even proms.
Through the foundation the McCabes, McCarthys, Ryans, Traynors and Von Dollens have created an everlasting bond. Each family has a child afflicted with a serious medical condition. Although every case is vastly different from one another, they have all connected through the foundation.
“We’re a family – one big family,” says Chris McCabe, a young man with spina bifida, a developmental congenital disorder. He explained that when one of the kids hits a rough patch, they call and text each other just to check in and send support.
Lynn McCarthy, mother to 21-year-old Ryan, finds the bond among the parents therapeutic. “We all care about each other’s kids,” she says. “It’s like a support group we created without having to go to an actual support group.”
Taylor Ryan is a 13-year-old girl with a rare blood disorder known as histiocytosis. Her mother, Teresa, described what the foundation has meant to her and her family. “I’m so close with some of these families, and I never would have met them otherwise,” she said. “It’s like an extended family. That’s what we call them, our Garden of Dreams family.”
The Ryans hold fundraising events for Taylor’s condition, and this group of kids comes to support the cause, even spending nights in hotels when necessary. The Ryans live in Long Island, while the others hail from Rockland County, Queens and Staten Island. Despite the distance, they travel to support one another.
Matthew Von Dollen, who has extreme epilepsy, explained his view in deliberate speech: “We’re a family of people who have the same conditions but in different ways, that’s how I like to think of it.”
Deborah Traynor, mother to 12-year-old Liam, remembers her son’s “Make a Dream Come True” day vividly. Her whole family attended a Rangers practice, accompanied by Adam Graves, and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist gave Liam his stick following the workout.
“The best part about the foundation is not only did they make Liam feel so special that day, but they made my whole family feel special,” she said. “He has a twin sister so it’s difficult at times seeing him get all the limelight, but the foundation doesn’t skip a beat, they make sure it’s not just for the child, they make sure it’s for the entire family.”
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Chris, now 23, has had 101 surgeries, primarily orthopedic operations on his back. A quiet young man with matching brown hair and eyes, he is wheelchair bound, paralyzed from the waist down. Slightly hunched forward, Chris wheels himself around maintaining some level of autonomy.
“There are no words, there is no money, there’s nothing you could imagine that could ever repay the foundation for what they’ve done,” Chris’ mom Sheila said. “They put a constant smile on Chris’ face.”
Chris attended the game that evening with his parents and his two brothers Joe and Ryan. When goals were scored, they chanted and celebrated together, high-fiving and hugging. “Chris lives by the quote, ‘Tell me about your ability, not your disability,’” his older brother Joe said. “I just think he’s an inspiration to anybody who gets to meet him.”
Chris wore an Adam Graves jersey to the game. Chris was 2 years old when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994. Graves, who led the 1994 team with 52 goals, now serves as a spokesperson and ambassador for the foundation. He and Chris have a close relationship. “He’s one of the greatest Rangers that ever played the game. It means the world to me to know him,” Chris said of Graves.
“It’s truly amazing when you see your brother crying when somebody like Adam Graves talks to him, gives him the chills,” Joe said. “He’s so humbled by having Adam there, it’s another father figure to look up to.”
When Adam Graves’ number 9 was retired in 2009, he brought Chris on the ice with him for the ceremony. “Chris is in a wheelchair so he’s never had that experience,” his mother said of being on ice. “Adam allows him to experience things that we never thought that he could.”
Kristine Burton, vice president of the Garden of Dreams Foundation, has been involved since the foundation’s inception, and recognized Chris and Adam’s special bond. “When Chris talks about Adam he gets so emotional, I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said. “He’ll start to cry. He adores him so much that he doesn’t even have the words. It’s fascinating that someone has had so much impact on his life.”
Graves, a tough winger with a wicked wrist shot for the Rangers from 1991-2001, is a soft-spoken hero for these kids. A father of three, Graves is unassuming and friendly, saying hello to patrons and security guards at the Garden. Growing up in Toronto in a house full of foster children, Graves has always understood the value of giving back. He was involved in charity work throughout his career, but now is part of the Rangers’ hockey and business operations, or “a little bit of everything” as he calls it. Through his role with the Garden of Dreams, he places even more emphasis on working with children with disadvantages.
“I think Garden of Dreams is really simple – we’re putting a smile on kids’ faces, we’re making dreams come true,” he said. “So to say, ‘Hey, two weeks from now you’re going to come to the Garden to sit in a box, we’re going to have candy, hotdogs, face paint – it’s a real simple idea, but that’s the magic of the Garden.”
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Taylor Ryan’s rare blood disorder affects the central nervous system, sometimes causing seizures, numbness and blindness in her right eye. Although not yet proven effective as a cure, the disease is treated with chemotherapy. Taylor has been receiving treatments for four years in hopes that they will improve her condition. Despite her repeated bouts of chemotherapy, she looks like a healthy young teenager with flowing sandy brown hair.
Taylor became involved with the Garden of Dreams foundation after a hospital visit from Graves and has since formed close bonds with current players.
At just 23, Chris Kreider is one of the youngest active players for the Rangers and when speaking about Taylor, he can’t help but smile. “She’s always really chipper and energetic. It’s fun having her family around regardless of what she’s going through,” he said.
Taylor often attends practice sessions at the Rangers’ training facility in Westchester County. She has become friends with Kreider and center Derick Brassard. “I realized that she was a pretty special young lady,” Brassard said. “We have a good relationship, we pretty much text every day.”
On one occasion, Brassard missed Taylor at a practice session. He felt so guilty that he FaceTimed her afterwards just to apologize. While Taylor recognizes what it means to have a personal relationship with Rangers players, she is able to keep a level head about it all. She uses her special Rangers access to spread awareness of her disease and runs an annual toy drive in an effort to give back to the Garden of Dreams.
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Matthew Von Dollen, 22, had what his mother called a “full-blown” seizure the afternoon of his dream day while standing between Mark Messier and Adam Graves. Matthew’s one dream was to meet Mark Messier. “The two men were unfazed; they picked up Matthew and continued the ceremony,” his father said.
Matthew is a tall, lanky young man with a wide grin. Because of his epilepsy, he has suffered seizures on a daily basis since he was born. He requires constant care.
Matthew has been with Garden of Dreams since its inception. “Matthew’s picture is in my office and it always will be,” Burton said. “We started the foundation in September 2006, and Matthew’s wish was in November 2006. It was really the first time that we actually went out to do something like that. It was the first time we were given the understanding of what we could do and the power of that. What we’re able to do is really cool.”
Garden of Dreams sent Matthew’s younger brother to hockey camp for a week. “They take care of the whole family,” Matthew’s mother said. “It just puts a smile on your face. It’s probably the happiest thing that’s ever happened to us. To be here tonight is thrilling to him. This is his mecca.”
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Ryan McCarthy, 21, is autistic and developmentally delayed. His parents, Lynn and Chris, wrote letters to the Rangers in hopes of becoming involved in the Garden of Dreams. They were one of the lucky families.
Last Spring, Burton organized the first Garden of Dreams prom. For kids who may never get to experience going to a prom, this was a dream come true. Players, including Lundqvist, surprised some kids with personal shopping sprees at Barney’s and Macy’s. Ryan, not usually an avid shopper, picked out his suit and bowtie by himself at Macy’s – all expenses paid. The Rockettes were on hand to help the girls with their makeup.
“Ryan will never experience certain things in life, but when they asked them last year to go to the prom, we were crying the whole way home,” his father said. “We can never give him anything close to what he experienced last year.”
Burton and the entire Garden of Dreams staff worked hard to make the prom a reality, knowing that it would be a home run. “A lot of these kids don’t have the opportunity to go to their own prom. And to have your prom at MSG?” she said smiling.
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Liam Traynor, 12, has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair bound. Whatever Liam lacks in physical ability, he makes up for with his bright, effervescent personality. He was the most talkative of all the children, offering insight into his favorite hockey players. Much to his dismay, most of those players have been traded.
Liam’s mother, Deborah, recognizes her son’s positive attributes. “He’s very engaging and I think that’s why people are drawn to him. He has a charismatic way about him,” she said.
When classmates bullied him last year, he stopped the taunts by threatening to bring the New York Rangers to school with him. “That was a really hard time, he was being singled out because he’s different,” Deborah said. “But when he’s here [at the Garden], he’s not. When he’s here, he doesn’t have to worry about who he is, that he’s sitting in the wheelchair, that he has this disability.”
Liam has another protector. His twin sister, Shannon, a hockey player in her own right, looks after her brother while at school. Deborah said it started even when they were young. “They started preschool, and they had to carry Liam in. He was crying. Shannon wasn’t speaking yet, but she tugged her teacher’s jacket and pointed, she wanted to make sure he was okay,” she said through tears. “At such a young age she knew to watch out for him. And now, every first day of school, she’ll check to make sure he’s OK.”
One way in which Liam can give back to his sister and his family is through the Garden of Dreams. “He likes sharing this with her, he wanted her to come tonight,” Deborah said. His sister was at hockey practice. “Hockey is something that brings our family together. Every time my phone rings and it’s the Garden of Dreams Foundation, I never know what’s coming next. And each time it’s unique and different. They are memories that will last forever.”
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The Rangers topped the Canadiens, 5-0, that chilly Sunday evening in November. It seemed like a fitting outcome for a night when all the kids wanted was to see a win and to chant, “Goooo-oooal” with and for their friends.
These five families all face extreme challenges everyday, but the players, current and past, strive to make the kids smile through small gestures, whether it’s a phone call, a text message or a hug. The foundation continues to support these five children, and thousands others just like them, with continued care and attention. They find comfort in each other’s company and in the Garden.
Chris, the oldest of the group, acknowledged, “It’s like a second home for me.”