"If I can stop one heart from breaking," Emily Dickinson once wrote, "I shall not live in vain." Imagine, then, what the poet would think of Andrea Yaeger.
The former tennis great has spent the last 15 years working hard to keep little hearts from breaking -- specifically, the hearts of children who are fighting cancer. Thanks to Andrea's Silver Lining Foundation, these kids and their families get a much-needed break -- an all-expense-paid week of vacation in the breathtaking mountains of Aspen, Colo. As the Foundation's Web site notes, "Participants exchange a sterile hospital environment and rigid medical schedule for white water rafting, horseback riding, gondola rides … skiing and making lifetime friends."
What a welcome break this represents for children trapped in an otherwise grim environment. "It's horrifying the things these kids have to go through," Andrea told a reporter who noted that "the ranch has hosted kids with medicine-dispensing ports in their chests, kids missing half a nose, kids with their heads stapled together after having a brain tumor removed and 14-year-olds picking out the clothes they will wear at their funerals."
How heart-warming and deeply satisfying it must be to bring smiles, laughter and happy memories to children who have to endure such suffering.
And with the assistance of Yaeger's Little Star group, these children and their families get the support they need to battle their adversary, from educational seminars and medical conferences on cancer research to spiritual and religious retreats. Her work has attracted financial and moral support from a variety of celebrities, including Cindy Crawford, John McEnroe, Kevin Costner and Paul Newman. And when you see the determination in the young people that Andrea helps, it's easy to see why.
Take 14-year-old Rob. As someone battling rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and malignant form of childhood cancer, you might expect to find him bitter. But not Rob: "When I'm lying on a hospital bed receiving treatment or at home sick, I always ask myself, why me? Then I think of all the other horrors that plague the world besides my cancer, like war and famine, and in comparison to all of these, my illness appears to be so insignificant. If people have the strength and courage to end wars and put an end to famine, surely I have the power and courage to fight and beat cancer."
What a lesson in perspective! When we think of all the relatively minor problems we face each day -- so-and-so didn't return my phone call, my cake didn't turn out just right, I'm running late for a certain meeting, etc. -- it's sobering to think about these children, who would gladly change places with most of us and our so-called big problems. And to think that many of these children themselves have the grace to take a big-picture view of their problems is startling.
Andrea, who knows what it's like to experience a life-changing stroke of bad luck, can identify with these kids. She began playing professional tennis at age 14 and eventually become the No. 2 ranked player in the world -- until a sudden and serious shoulder injury sidelined her. She had already been visiting sick children while on tour, and she gradually began doing more and more for them. It wasn't long before her personal funds, including more than $1 million in tennis prize money, was gone. She became a top-notch fundraiser, securing her first big donation from John McEnroe in 1989. Today, the programs of the Silver Lining Foundation and Little Star stand as powerful testimony to her love and determination to help others.
Letters such as this one are typical:
Watching my 9-year-old daughter make the decision to have her leg amputated, when she had been the fastest runner, a dancer, a gymnast, the best athlete within her elementary school, and see the acceptance of what life has put in front of her with very little anger, is the hardest thing I have ever done. But meeting groups like yours makes it possible for me to get up in the morning. Thanks for being the person you are. And for sharing your heart.
There are many worthy causes out there, but few can trump the cause of helping sick children and their families. If you feel moved to contribute, I hope you'll consider making a donation to this wonderful organization. One nice way is to purchase the Little Star Beanie -- a Beanie Baby bear created especially to raise money for Andrea's children.
Whatever you can do, it's certainly worth it -- if it can stop just one heart from breaking.
Rebecca Hagelin is a vice president of The Heritage Foundation and the author of Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family in a Culture that's Gone Stark Raving Mad.