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Posted December 14, 2012
All Children's Patient, Connor Bruseski Receives the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Community Hero Award

Tampa Bay Lightning Hero Award
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A year ago, young Connor Bruseski wondered what his future held as he lay in his bed on the oncology floor at All Children's Hospital. Today, after a courageous and successful battle against brain cancer, Connor wants to help brighten the future of children who have traveled the same frightening and uncertain road.

As a recipient of the 13th annual Tampa Bay Lightning's Community Hero Award, he'll get to do just that.

Connor, 8, received a $50,000 grant from the NHL club Friday afternoon in a sun-splashed ceremony in Zoe's Garden outside the hospital. And in a remarkable show of generosity and gratitude, the Tampa Bay area youngster will be donating $40,000 of that gift to All Children and, specifically, to the Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center - named after the current Lightning captain. He's donating the remaining $10,000 to the Children's Dream Fund.

Former Bolts captain Dave Andreychuk, now vice president of fans and business development for the club, was on hand to present the checks on behalf of the program created by Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. The initiative awards grants to individuals in the Tampa Bay community who are "catalysts for causes that enhance the lives of others, exhibit dedication and selflessness, make an impact on others and go above and beyond to inspire others."

Connor was spurred to action when he was flooded with gifts from family, friends and well-wishers during his treatment at All Children's. He wondered why he should receive so many presents and decided he wanted to help other kids fighting cancer get gifts as well. So, with the help of parents Mark and Wendy Bruseski, he created "Friends of Connor" to raise money to buy presents for other children dealing with oncology issues.

He designed 2,000 "Friends of Connor" wristbands and sold them for a $5 donation. Within 90 days, more than $14,000 had been raised. That number is now close to $20,000.

"Connor, you are a hero, and your actions inspire many people," Jenine Rabin, Executive Vice President of the ACH Foundation, told Connor as smiled broadly, standing beside twin sister Rylee and his parents.

Elizabeth Frazier, an executive with the Lightning Foundation, pointed out that Connor was now the youngest hero honored in the two-year-old program, which presents a $50,000 grant to a deserving individual for every home game on the schedule.

"Community heroes come in all different shapes, sizes, colors and causes and there is no one definition of what makes a community hero, and that's why it's so wonderful because it takes all different types of heroes to make a vibrant community," she said. "So thank you. You have your own life's journey you're going on. You're thinking of others. And I'm just so inspired by you.

"This program is more than just about giving $50,000 today to two organizations that are near and deal to your family's heart. It's really about telling your story to thousands of and thousands of Lightning fans out there so they can say, 'Connor, he's using his life to help other people."

Then it was time for Andreychuk to tell Connor and his family what was in store for them. Normally, the presentation would have been made in front of the fans on the ice at before a Lightning home game. But due to the ongoing lockout, Andreychuk has been making personal check presentations around the Tampa Bay. Once games resume, however, Connor and the Bruseski's will still be honored at a game.

"When we do get playing again, you guys are going to come down and watch our game," he said. "What happens normally is that I'm going to take you on a tour of the locker room while the players are on the ice just before the game. We're going to go sit on the bench and watch them warm up."

But there's something perhaps even more special in store. Connor's photo will displayed on the wall inside the locker room, along with a synopsis of his hero story, so all the players can read it before they play.

"That kind of impacts our players," he said. "When our players walk into the room for that game, your picture is up in that room. And they look at that picture and they see your story. And it inspires them to play, which I think is great (because) it happens every day. So not only are you impacting people here with all the great things you do, but you're making hockey players play."

With that, Andreychuk presented Connor with two checks, one for All Children's and the other for the Children's Dream Fund. The ACH gift will be divided three ways:

Some ¬will go toward providing financial assistance for families who can't afford to pay for hospitalization. The significance of this gesture can't be underestimated, especially given the fact that some 70 percent of All Children's families are on Medicaid. Connor's giving spirit will help alleviate the financial worries so many parents face as their child fights cancer.

Some will go to helping kids in the Lecavalier center enjoy a diversion from the enormous daily challenges they face. He's making it possible to purchase three Starlight Fun Centers: specially built entertainment units. Each center houses a Wii console and all the necessary accessories (such as two controllers and two nunchucks), a Sharp AQUOS flat screen television and DVD player, a library of 22 pre-loaded Wii games and dozens more DVDs that can be popped in.

The Starlight Fun Center is customized for hospital use, with wheels that allow it to roll easily and be played by kids without having to leave their beds. The game centers serve as a welcome pursuit for sick and injured children, helping offset the isolation and fear that they invariably experience while in the hospital.

"It's hard to have a game center without losing items," said ACH's Child Life director Kristin Maier. "This way, it's all enclosed. It's safe. It meets all standards of the hospital. It's easily cleaned. And we can take it to area's where kids spend long periods of time. And they can have an activity, because the Wii involves more than just sitting and playing a video game. It's actually a physical activity - and the whole family can get involved. It's a great way to engage the kids."

Finally, Connor has designated another portion of his grant to go toward funding an oncology research project at All Children's, which sees 125 new oncology patients annually. Given the hospital's expanded research mission as a partner of Johns Hopkins Medicine, his gift comes at an opportune time.

Connor's dad, Mark, spoke expressed his gratitude to the Lightning, All Children's and the Dream Fund for their work and talked of the long journey his family has been on.

"Cancer hit my life when I was a little boy about (Connor's age) when my father got diagnosed," he said. "I lost my father when I was 11. Fast forward to what's going on and it's been a crazy year. Being in this community and seeing what the Lightning has done before Connor was diagnosed, I opened (the paper) and saw what Mr. Vinik has done for the community and many recipients. To think (Connor) might be here today and what we ultimately turned this into is phenomenal. So I'm very thankful."

Mark, who works in software sales in the cancer prevention field, also singled out All Children's for the treatment and care afforded Connor.

"I've been around cancer care since I was a boy - that's my livelihood and on top of that now there's my child," he said. "And I've seen what this institution has done for the community. And the care that is given here is exceptional. I'm in hospitals and cancer centers just about every day of my life. And the care throughout - from the receptionists to the nurses on the floor, to the transporters ... it's been phenomenal. And Dr. (Nanette) Grana and the whole team - it's amazing what they can do for children."

"He's still in treatment, but I think he's about halfway through and he's doing great," she said.

Connor's generosity will also be felt in a big way with the Children's Dream Fund, emphasized executive director Cynthia Lake.

"It makes a huge difference," she said. "We have about 80 people waiting for a dream to come true. We'll take this money and put it toward our share of the Dream Program. And we'll make dreams come true with this money in honor of Connor."