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Umps, Angels bring smiles to local kids

Umps, Angels bring smiles to local kids

Children's Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) is about thirty miles outside of Los Angeles, but for a few hours on July 2 it might as well have been the City of Angels. UMPS CARE Charities, the official charity of Major League Baseball umpires, and two members of Angels Strike Force, the interactive squad for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, descended upon CHOC with a full-blown Build-A-Bear Workshop® for the young patients right in their hospital rooms.

MLB umpires Gary Darling, Bill Hohn, and Paul Emmel were joined by Strike Force members Brooke Legacy and Chelsea Hodis in offering the children a choice of three Build-A-Bears and their desired clothing; the favorite for most, of course: an Angels uniform. The group spent time with each child as well, helping them dress the new furry friend, filling out the "birth certificate" with them, and constructing the Cub Condo® carrying case for the bears when they aren't being cuddled. While the bears made the patients' eyes light up, it was the time spent with the kids that resonated on the other side.

"We didn't want to go into too much with their surgeries," explained Hohn. "Just small talk."

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Darling agreed, stating that "it was more about taking their mind off [medical issues]." It was great just to help put a smile on a kid's face for the day," said Darling, "and give him or her something to look forward to other than another needle, another round of chemo, another X-ray."

Darling is the president of the UMPS CARE Charities board of directors, so while this was his first hospital visit with the charity, he's deeply involved in the program overall. UMPS CARE Charities is only a few years old, explained Darling, and he hopes to continue its growth. His goals, he said, are to continue with the hospital visits, continue donating tickets to ballgames for children waiting for adoption, support families in need, and weigh other opportunities to help as they are presented.

With the amount of support they have been receiving from the Angels, the future of the hospital visits seems bright. Lindsay McHolm, community relations coordinator for the Angels, jumped at the chance for the Angels to participate. She said the umpires of UMPS CARE Charities "have been a fantastic group to work with and I am continually amazed at how great they are with the kids."

McHolm attended a previous hospital visit herself, and when the charity approached her for assistance from the Angels she readily suggested Strike Force. Chelsea Hodis, for one, was glad she did -- and glad she volunteered.

"I did not expect to feel so humbled and appreciated," Hodis said. "When a child became excited or anxious over the simple act of receiving a Build-A-Bear and thanked us with such appreciation, it really lifted my spirits and was extremely humbling. It was a wonderful experience, and if I had the opportunity to do this every day, you bet I'd be there."

The attitude of the patients particularly impressed her. "Their strength, courage, and positive outlook on life motivates me and reminds me of how blessed I am."

Bill Hohn, who partnered with Hodis' teammate Brooke Legacy when going room-to-room, praised the Strike Force members. "Brooke was fantastic," said Hohn. "She communicated extremely well with the patients, and they were happy to have their bears. They were just very grateful."

This was Hohn's first hospital visit with UMPS CARE Charities, but he's visited hospitals on his own in the past and knew what to expect to some extent. He's also been involved with the Police Athletic League at home in Pennsylvania, works with the blind, and participates in other charities as time allows. His motivation for this event is simple: "I would do anything for the kids, anything I can."

Multiple outside forces contribute to the umpires doing what they can for these children. UMPS CARE Charities raises money year-round to purchase the Build-A-Bears that they give away. Fund-raising events include a 100-hole golf marathon, a golf tournament, and a "Run for Bears" in coordination with the Baltimore Marathon in October.

"The hospital visits aren't cheap," Darling admitted. "They're thousands of dollars for each one. That's what we do our fund-raising for and go play 100 holes of golf in one day. Now that I've done this visit, it'll be a lot easier to ask for those pledges." For more information on all these events and for information on pledging or making a donation, visit www.UmpsCare.com.

Corporate sponsors also assist with the charity's efforts, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, The World Umpires Association, MLB.com, and Gerry Davis Sports. Page Soapes, a territory rep for oncology with Bristol-Myers Squibb, assisted at the CHOC visit and came away very moved.

"I don't think I was ready to be touched," said Soapes. "I didn't think it would impact my heart as much as it did." She told a story of one girl, tubes everywhere, whose main focus was on building a bear -- for her brother. Later, when Soapes shared that it was her birthday, the patient gleefully informed the entire room and helped sing "Happy Birthday." Soapes came away impressed with how this patient focused more on others than herself and the hope that represents.

"When you are there and you are actually touched by a patient, you feel what that hope is really about," she commented. "I only spent four or five hours there. But to have a life-changing experience around the concept of hope is something you don't forget."

Hospital staff are extremely grateful as well. Monica Garcia, senior public relations specialist at CHOC, helped with the event on the hospital side of things. "Events like this uplift the patients' spirits," she said. "Being in the hospital is really a tough time. We try to create an environment where we take their mind off the treatment and bring a smile to their face."

"We really appreciate the UMPS CARE organization," Garcia continued. "They've been here a few times, and their work does not go unnoticed. Our patients, this is one of their favorite events."

It's a favorite of the umpires as well. "I just hope that UMPS CARE Charities continues to go to the hospitals," said Hohn, "and I want to take time out each year and help whenever I can."

Kevin Cuddihy is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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