MANATEE COUNTY — Although 13-year-old Matthew Baar has long been an advocate for children battling cancer, the Haile Middle School student has always preferred to stay out of the spotlight.
But his actions have not gone unnoticed.
The East County youth scored big Jan. 15, for his favorite charities, as the Tampa Bay Lightning honored him as a Lightning Community Hero and awarded him $50,000 for his charities of choice — All Children’s Hospital’s Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and Children’s Dream Fund.
Through a coin-collection initiative called “Change for Change,” Matthew raised more than $2,500 with which to purchase a Touch2Play game for the infusion center at All Children’s Hospital, where his younger brother, Joey, has received treatments over the last three-and-one-half years in his battle against leukemia.
“I am really happy (for) the kids in the hospital (to get this game),” Matthew said. “I really couldn’t do it without the help of everybody who helped.”
Additionally, through a game Matthew and a friend designed for the Hunsader Farms Pumpkin Festival, Matthew, over the last three years, has helped raise more than $7,000 combined for All Children’s and the Children’s Dream Fund, which granted a wish for Joey Baar in late 2009.
“We look to choose heroes who lead by example in the community and can inspire others to use their life to make the Tampa Bay community a better place,” said Elizabeth Frazier, the Lightning’s vice president of philanthropy and community initiatives. “Matthew’s story of his work with All Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Dream Fund is a wonderful example of such giving back.
“He saw through his brother’s experiences some qualities he wanted to have changed and improved and he took action,” she said. “We commend him for that.”
Matthew Baar said he came up with the idea for his “Change for Change” campaign while doing an assignment for his social studies class last year, at which time he and his classmates were tasked with developing a community service project.
Matthew, however, decided to take the project one step further, implementing his idea to raise enough money to purchase the Touch2Play game for All Children’s.
“(The kids getting treatment) need something to sidetrack the time,” Matthew said. “I saw Joey really liked (this game). All the kids really liked it.”
So, Matthew and family members distributed empty bottles to friends and neighbors so they could collect spare for the cause. When the coin drive finished at the end of summer, enthusiasm remained high, and the Baar family decided to extend the campaign through the Hunsader’s Pumpkin Festival in October.
“Money kept trickling in,” Matthew’s dad, Jim Baar, said.
All Children’s nominated Matthew for the award in November, and the Baar family learned Matthew was a finalist shortly after Christmas. Then, in the first week of January, the news of Matthew’s selection came.
“I thought he was joking,” Matthew said of when his dad told him the news. “It was really cool.”
The Baar family arrived at their first hockey game Jan. 15 with much enthusiasm. Upon their arrival in the player’s parking lot, they met Lightning lead scorer Steven Stamkos, before heading to the hockey rink and sitting on the players bench to watch warm-ups.
“I didn’t realize how big the stadium is,” Matthew said. “The lady told me that was the closest you can get to the ice without being on it.”
“Joey’s eye’s got huge,” his mother, Mary Jo, said.
Then, the family went to the locker room, where they met more players and the coach and watched the team strategize for the game. Matthew also got to shake hands and take a picture with Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier and team owner Jeff Vinik, as they delivered a check into his hands.
Matthew Baar proudly wore his new Lightning jersey, with his own last name on the back, while watching the game from a skybox with his family.
Although Matthew is excited about the contributions the Lightning has made, he has no plans to slow down his own efforts in supporting the causes. Matthew plans to launch his campaign again in a few weeks with the help of his sister, Amanda. This year’s drive, dubbed “Change for Dreams,” will benefit Children’s Dream Fund, he said.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].
HOW THE FUNDS WILL BE USED
The All Children’s Hospital Foundation plans to use grants to purchase the following:
• Two Starlight Fun Centers for patients. The center is a mobile entertainment unit that features a customized Nintendo Wii and a LCD flat panel television and DVD player
• Five Apple iPads for use of patients of the center and throughout the hospital
• One medical-grade blanket warmer
• One Keurig single-cup brewing system
• Fourteen holiday or special event celebrations
• Creation of a teen room at the center