Lane Johnson was lathered in sweat, beads dripping down his face after a brutally hot training camp practice on a 92-degree August day. He was walking back toward the locker room when he stopped to high-five a bright-eyed child in a wheelchair.
“Super Bowl or bust,” Johnson shouted as he stopped to chat with the boy and his family in a scene that unfolded at the NovaCare Complex, with a Nick Foles’ Super Bowl picture providing the perfect backdrop.
It seemed to be a random act of kindness, but it wasn’t random at all. The Philadelphia Eagles are committed to giving back to their fans in a variety of ways as evidenced by their new state-of-the-art sensory room. One under-the-radar program involves inviting certain fans, patients from Magee Rehabilitation Hospital dealing with debilitating injuries and kids from Alex’s Lemonade Stand fighting childhood cancer, to attend practices. It’s an all-access opportunity for those lucky enough to go behind the scenes and interact with their heroes.
“It’s our way of paying it forward and being good stewards, and it’s instilled from above with our leadership. We want to take the love from our fans and give that love back, it’s at the core of all we do,” said Julie Hirshey, Director of Community Relations for the Eagles. “We are part of the fabric of the city of Philadelphia. When we are able to give a little bit of what the fans are giving to us and share it with the community in a positive and meaningful way, that is at the core of all we do.”
These inspiring stories are hiding all over the Eagles’ facility, from the practice field to the locker room, where they serve as a source of hope. You don’t have to look far to see their impact. On a recent afternoon, a sturdy sign reading “12 Years Cancer Free” was gently flapping in the wind. The sign, hand-painted by 12-year-old Lily Adkins, has been a staple at camp where Lily has been a regular for the past two seasons. Everyone knows her. Everyone knows that sign.
“A player wished me a happy birthday,” said Lily, who was invited to attend practice on behalf of Alex’s Lemonade Stand. “But it wasn’t my birthday!”
Lily was cracking up recalling the story. Last year, her sign read “11 Years Cancer Free” and this year it read “12 Years Cancer Free.” Lily will bring another one that reads “13 Years Cancer Free” next year.
“She is taking Alex’s spirit and making it resonate with the rest of the world,” said Hirshey. “She’s now 12 years cancer-free, what an amazing accomplishment.”
Alex’s Hero Ambassador Family Network
After being diagnosed with an ependymoma brain tumor in 2007 at 14-months-old, Lily’s family was designated a “Hero Ambassador Family.” Alex’s Lemonade Stand submits a heart-warming list every year of kids who love the Eagles and then the team extends invitations. It’s a collaborative “labor of love,” says Hirshey, that has been going on for roughly a decade.
“If we can provide at least a tiny bit of respite and hope for those going through a tough time, then we feel like it’s been worth it,” said Hirshey. “If we can be there to support these kids who have been through such a tough time and give them hope, then we are happy to do it.”
Lily’s mom, Trish Adkins, was down at practice with her daughter and beams about how the experience provided “real hope versus just praying.” Lily opened up her first lemonade stand when she was three years old and the Adkins family has bonded with other “hero ambassador families” going through the same challenges.
“The players go above and beyond because it’s not their responsibility to make these kids feel good, especially not with all the other things they have going on,” said Trish. “But, the players really get into it. They take the extra time. We had one player, he was just dripping sweat all over our sign. They all stopped and took the time to sign it. That was so special.”
Many of the players don’t just stop by for the quick photo opportunity or handshake. No, they actually make an effort to chat with the kids and dole out life lessons. Lily’s favorite moment happened last year when Nick Foles pulled her aside. Lily didn’t want to reveal what they talked about, saying only “it was just about life,” but she definitely remembers the amazing picture they took.
“The players stay and talk and look them in the eyes,” said Trish. “They shake your hand, so there’s a certain level of friendship there. You can’t get regular people on the street to take the time out to look you in the eyes sometimes.”
Foles wasn’t the only one. Carson Wentz also swung by and autographed Lily’s sign. She owns a Wentz jersey and the starting quarterback is her favorite player.
“I talked to Carson!,” Lily said.
The best part? He was totally normal, not aloof or too important.
“In the end, they are just human beings, just like you and me,” said Trish. “And that’s what I want my children to learn about humanity, about human beings, to translate the compassion for other people that they show, that’s what life is all about.”
Her fandom comes largely from watching Eagles games with her dad. Mike Adkins went to Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII. The tradition has become a family affair as the whole Adkins tribe — mom, dad, Lily, along with 10-year-old sister Chloe and 6-year-old brother Nicholas — watch every Sunday on television and root on the Eagles.
“It’s a chance for kids to be kids, a life outside of cancer,” said Trish. “My two younger children — I remember them going through everything with us, even though they weren’t born when Lily was diagnosed — are really impacted in a big way so having that network and having that inclusion by the Eagles, it’s really special.”
Lily’s Quest to Put Lemonade Stands in 50 States
Lily Adkins and her family could have given up after undergoing complications from surgery on her brain tumor in 2007. They could have gone into a corner and felt sorry for themselves. Instead, they turned to Alex’s Lemonade Stand for support, an organization that has been instrumental in helping them cope with cancer.
“Something awful like cancer happens, but there are so many great things that happen as a result,” said Trish. “Now we get to talk about the need to raise awareness for childhood cancer and to hopefully work on a cure.
“Nothing can make up for it, but at least my kids get to be seen and get to talk about it. This disease is terrible, but it’s not all bad, it’s just part of your story. We’re here to show everyone that you’re not alone.”
Lily started cancer treatment when she was 14 months and there were long-term side effects, mainly imbalance issues. She wasn’t supposed to walk on her own, not without the help of crutches or a wheelchair. Miraculously, Lily recovered and can walk, dance, even ride horses. She loves riding her bike around her neighborhood in Haddon Township, New Jersey.
“I love my bike, it’s a Schwinn,” Lily said. “When I go riding it around the neighborhood, all the adults stop me and say, ‘What a great bike.’”
Lily started her first lemonade stand when she was three and holds the world record for the largest cup of lemonade, forever immortalized in a 10-foot tall trophy cup. Her goal is to host a lemonade stand in all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., by the time she is 15 in May 2020. So far, Lily has two states scratched off the list: New Jersey and Florida. Pennsylvania is next on the agenda.
Said Hirshey: “She wants to expand Alex’s spirit beyond Philadelphia, take it into all 50 states and that aligns with what Liz and Jay [Alex Scott’s parents] would have wanted, and I think that’s what is so special about her.”
Alex’s Lemonade Stand works with the family to connect them with friends in other states and to find corporate sponsors. Trish wonders how they’ll be able to garner support in more remote places, like North Dakota and South Dakota.
When this writer reminded her that she does know someone out there, Carson Wentz, she replied: “Look at that, we do know someone there.”
(This is the first of a two-part series exploring the Eagles charity partnerships with Alex’s Lemonade Stand and Magee Rehabilitation Hospital).
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