By LARRY VAUGHT
Former Kentucky tight end C.J. Conrad started a program where UK football players make a weekly visit to Kentucky Children’s Hospital to spend time with patients and their families — a program that continues this year even after Conrad’s graduation.
It’s a rewarding program for Jennifer Guilliams, child life coordinator at Kentucky Children’s Hospital. However, she does have to try and figure out who the UK football players see on their visits.
“We try to get them to see as many patients as they can keeping in mind their school and practice schedules,” Guilliams said.”We look each week at what our patient population looks like and which families and patients can get the biggest boost from the visits. Sometimes the players stay 2 1/2 hours and get to see every patient. Normally they are here for about an hour.
“My staff really looks at what families need today and how to help them get through the illnesses and find some comfort.”
The players visit year-round except in the summer under the coordinator of Courtney Love, UK’s director of player development. Conrad started the program not as a media event but as a way to help young patients.
“C.J. wanted it about the kids, not the football players,” Guilliams said. “We have tons of visitors to the hospital and are blessed that people bring things to brighten up the patients’ stays. But there is just something that is community with these football players. The families feel so much more connected to UK and to these players because of these visits.”
Recently quarterback Sawyer Smith, offensive guard Luke Fortner and kicker Matt Ruffalo visitedKentucky Children’s Hospital. Smith had been so beat up physically that he didn’t even throw a pass during UK’s open week but called the visit to the hospital “inspiring” for him.
Fortner says the goal is to help take the patients’ minds off their problems but often the players get more from the visits than the patients.
“Kids are the best because you never know what they are going to say. They always make you smile. It may sound a little selfish, but when I’m having a bad week I come and it makes my week a lot better. They don’t know it, but they are giving me a lot in return,” Fortner said.
Guilliams says what the football players have been doing gives the hospital staff a sense of pride and community because they see the support the hospital has.
“I have been here 2 1/2 years and one thing that drove me here was the sense of community in this university,” Guilliams said. “What these players do for our patients and their families is just special. We have kids that are frequent patients here and they look forward to the Tuesday visits from the players. They will talk about getting posters or football signed after the players leave.
“I have seen parents that have been through some of the worst times of their life and are feeling out of control and visits from these football players brightens their days. It really is amazing. The players are just 100 percent genuine. They will go to any child, go to any room and spend as much time as they can. One time I had to tell the guys they could not play video games for 45 minutes with just one patient.
“They don’t do it for any reason other than they just want to be there for those kids and to me, that makes these athletes pretty special.”