CHAMPAIGN — What kids and their families going through the stress of hospitalization and illness couldn't use the gift of a fun, stress-free game day experience, Blake Rockwell figured when he founded his national charity, Special Spectators.
Now in its 15th college football season, Special Spectators has been working locally with Illinois athletics and Carle Foundation Hospital since 2003 to plan annual game day outings, and one of those days rolls around for 11 families today as Illinois takes on North Carolina.
Each family selected has gone through a rough time this past year because of a child's illness or injury, and was especially thought to need this break. That includes families with children still undergoing treatment for ongoing diseases and those with kids who needed to be hospitalized for weeks to months during the past year, according to Carle child life specialist Sara Burton.
Special treatment today will include shuttle service to the stadium from a University of Illinois parking lot and a catered tailgate party in Grange Grove close to UI athletes, who will be dropping by to visit and play games with the kids, she said.
Some of the kids will also be taking a tour of the Irwin Indoor Football Practice Facility and getting a chance to run on the field before the game, Burton said.
"It's a cool experience that not a lot of people get," she said.
And what this time spent with UI athletes typically means to these kids, she said, "the next time they come to the hospital, they're still talking about playing football with some of their favorite athletes."
Rockwell, a New York-based small business consultant, said he came up with the idea for this charity when he was a hospital volunteer in Chicago and working with teenagers.
He learned that many of the kids were sports fans, and "very few of them had ever been to a game."
"Since 2002, we've hosted about 9,000 patients, parents and siblings at about 330 games across the country," he said.
Special Spectators runs game day events for kids across the country with the help of donations and volunteers, Rockwell said. It doesn't have any paid staff.
"We have 125 to 130 very dedicated, passionate volunteers who love giving these game day experiences to kids going through a rough time," he said. "It's fun to see the kids almost transformed over the game day experience."
One of them, Richard Williams, is a University of Illinois graduate who has since moved to New York and returns each year to Champaign-Urbana to help with the Illinois-Carle game day events.
The organization looks to host about 45 game day experiences this fall, Rockwell said.