April 3, 2018 Alex Smith, Allye Clayton, and Emily Coats
Twice a year, the stands in Lewis University’s Neil Carey Arena fill up with purple instead of black and red.
It’s all to support Dan Friend and Lorelee Smith, head men’s and women’s volleyball coaches at Lewis in Romeoville, Illinois. The two dedicate one home match of each season to raising funds for the Loyola Medical Center in downtown Chicago in honor of their daughter Rae Analyn Friend. Between the last two years, the games raised about $6,500.
Rae was born at 23.4 weeks, and she had a 35-40 percent chance of survival. The couple didn’t even get to touch her until two or three weeks after her birth.
“She was born at one pound, eight ounces,” Friend said. “She was the size of my hand for the most part. It was a little bit of time until we got to do that first hold, where they kind of put her on your chest and everything. But it was definitely scary, mixed in with excited and happy and all those other things.”
Rae was in the hospital for 115 days, and the experience with Loyola’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) inspired Friend and Smith to start their “Playing for Preemies” fundraisers. The cause and the name are also popular in other sports.
They sell purple shirts to raise awareness for the cause, host a raffle and donate ticket proceeds to the NICU. The last fundraiser was at the men’s match versus Lindenwood on Feb. 9. The women’s team will host the next one.
Eric Butch, assistant coach for the men’s team, said it’s a game the team looks forward to each year.
“It adds an extra level of motivation knowing we are directly helping and showing support for someone we know and love,” he said. “When we put on the purple shirts and see all the fans matching us it adds an extra level of excitement and community.”
Friend said he and Smith will continue to host the fundraisers in coming seasons. The couple doesn’t have any specific goals, they just want to help as much as possible.
“It’s really nice that we’re able to give a little bit back to them for everything they did for us,” he said. “(We’ll continue to) find a way to support that environment and what they do and how they foster that.”
But the games aren’t the only place Rae makes an appearance. Now almost two years old, she frequently attends practices and watches game footage with both teams. Smith said she’s well-known by anyone who’s in the arena on a regular basis.
Both teams have become her extended family of sorts and enjoy spending time giving her snacks and high-fives. It’s been a very nurturing environment for her, Friend said, especially since she’s so social.
“My team adores her,” Smith agreed. “They get very excited and rush her anytime she shows up. Their love and acceptance of Rae was not expected but is fully appreciated. I’m pretty sure they love her more than me.”
Although Rae’s lineage naturally point her toward volleyball, Friend said he and Smith don’t intend to force the sport on her. Their main goal is to keep her happy and successful.
“She’s gonna be great at whatever she does,” Friend laughed. “If she ends up playing volleyball, awesome. We’ve already got her in swim lessons; we’re getting ready to start gymnastics. She’ll be pretty active.”