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Student athletes buddy up with young patients

MSU hockey's Miller helped create program at local hospital

January 20, 2006
Jordon Strayer, 14, of Eaton Rapids plays a video game while being visited by MSU hockey player Drew Miller at Sparrow Hospital on Jan. 12. Miller tries to visit children in the hospital on a weekly basis as part of his Spartan Buddy Program. —

Duncan Darnell wears his grandmother's shoes, about twice the size of his feet, as he stomps down the hallways and around the corners, stopping and pointing at the doors of the playroom.

The two-year-old boy stands firm, refusing attempts to remove the pacifier from his mouth.

When MSU hockey captain Drew Miller nudges the stand that carries the IV hooked up to the child's hand, he refuses to budge. The playroom it is.

Inside, Duncan roams from toy to toy, unfazed by camera flashes or curious reporters. Like most two-year-olds, the sleepy-eyed toddler eventually becomes impatient and strolls back into the hallway.

Instead of scoring goals and delivering hits on the ice, Miller talked with children and played with a Finding Nemo toy on a Thursday evening as part of the Spartan Buddy Program, which Miller helped initiate.

On this trip, he visited the pediatric ward of Sparrow Hospital with teammate Chris Snavely and MSU field hockey players Becky Manning and Becky Bolen.

The group traveled from room to room, chatting with a handful of kids, including Duncan, who was diagnosed with leukemia in March. During one of Miller's previous visits, he brought Duncan a hockey poster and stick. Miller, 21, has had such an impact on the boy that when Duncan was in the University of Michigan Hospital, his family crossed rival lines and hung up the Spartans poster.

"He jumped up like it was Santa Claus coming in the room. His face just lit up, he got so excited," Alma Cameron said about Miller's first visit. Cameron, a 58-year-old Lansing resident, is Duncan's grandmother.

"To come up here and just put a smile on their face and make them feel like a kid again, and kind of take them away from the whole hospital atmosphere is what we're trying to do," Miller said.

Miller and Snavely first visited the hospital in the fall of 2004. Miller then worked to create a program that would have athletes visit on a regular basis. He got in touch with Angela Howard, associate director of Student-Athlete Support Services, who handles community activities. Howard and Miller then contacted Sparrow Hospital and members of the hockey team soon began going on a frequent basis.

The Spartan Buddy Program was formed.

It has now grown into a 22-athlete, seven-sport program, including football's Drew Stanton and Jehuu Caulcrick, Drew Neitzel and Drew Naymick of the basketball team and women's basketball player Rene Haynes.

"The people that we picked, we knew they've done other outreaches and community service and we knew they'd be interested in doing it," Miller said about the athletes.

The Spartan Buddy Program is just one of many things the human resources junior does in the community that earned him a nomination for the 2006 Hockey Humanitarian Award, given annually to college hockey's finest citizen. The five finalists for the award are expected to be announced today.

Miller also is part of a pen pal program where MSU athletes exchange monthly letters with students in the Lansing community. He also has participated in Teams for Toys, DARE graduations, cancer walks and the Special Olympics.

"Drew's just one of those kids if you call him up, he'll make every effort to go, and he obviously comes up for things on his own and does everything he's requested," Howard said.

Although this is Miller's second-straight nomination, he keeps a very modest attitude about his community service.

"If I wasn't here (at the hospital) I'd be sitting around on the couch watching TV or playing on the computer, and it's a way to spend my time that's worthwhile," he said.

Although Miller seems to smoothly interact with the patients, he says it isn't always so easy.

"You learn how to handle situations and different questions to create conversation," he said.

When Miller visited Duncan, he and Duncan's grandmother struck up an immediate conversation, laughing about stories from Miller's childhood. That's because Miller's and Duncan's families have a long-standing relationship that stems back to Duncan's mother, Ellie Darnell, 35, of Lansing, who used to work at the rink where Miller skated as a child.

As the age and interests of each patient differ, Miller seems to adapt as well. With 14-year-old Kerry Childress of Lansing, the conversation ranged from video games to wrestlers. When it was time for the athletes to visit other children, Childress had a request.

"I was wondering if they wanted to watch 'The Longest Yard,'" he said to his mother. She put the whole program in perspective with her response.

"I don't think so, that's a long yard to watch," she said. "They got other kids to visit. They just came to show they care."

On the ice, the left winger has eight goals and 16 assists for the No. 19 MSU hockey team this season. Before playing for the Spartans, he spent time in the United States Hockey League and North American Hockey League. He has NHL dreams for when his MSU career is over.

"After next year, hopefully I'll be ready to make that jump to the next level," Miller said, about playing for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, the team that drafted him in the sixth round in 2003.

But after two classes, hockey practice and pediatric visits, Miller is thinking more about short-term plans on this night.

"I'll go home and eat, and just hang out for a little bit," he said. "Maybe watch 'The O.C.'"

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