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Part II - Sporting KC’s Victory Project: Even in change it’s a part “of who we are”

Neither run to playoffs or change in leadership interrupt depth of giving

Graham Zusi poses with a Victory Project honoree.
Sporting Kansas City

Welcome to Part II of “Sporting KC’s Victory Project: Even in change, it’s a part ‘of who we are.’” Check out Part I here.

Wishes granted, in the most difficult of times

A trip to Hawaii for 13-year-old Gavin. A gaming room makeover for 15-year-old Jordan. A trip to Alaska for 13-year-old Hannah. A trip to New Orleans and a puppy for 6-year-old Rush.

Those are four of the ten wishes that the Sporting Wishes initiative – an offspring Sporting Kansas City’s The Victory Project – has granted in its two-year existence. And unlike other wish-granting foundations, Sporting Wishes makes dreams come true for children who have developed a secondary cancer or a return of the original cancer, children who may battle cancer for the rest of their lives. Most wishes are, of course, private, but more public wishes like Kalen Ricketson becoming a Sporting KC player for a week make fans take notice.

Building a caring community

Educating people and inspiring them to focus part of their lives on giving is an ancillary purpose of nonprofit organizations. And Sporting Kansas City is uniquely positioned to build such a caring community. Overall, MLS’s demographics, and thus likely Sporting KC’s, trend toward a younger audience, with significant percentages in the 18-35 range compared to other sports. When it comes to the Hispanic or Latino audience, MLS dominates. In Kansas City, there is no NBA or NHL team, thus Sporting can draw in those who may not incline towards the Chiefs or Royals.

Take it from Sporting’s Neal and Jeanne Patterson Humanitarian of the Year, Graham Zusi, who has seen fan involvement firsthand at Victory Project events he has led or been a part of during the 2018 season: Yoga on the Pitch at Children’s Mercy Park, Sporting KC Day at the Kansas City Zoo, the Sporting Invitational golf tournament at Loch Lloyd Country Club, and Celebrity Bartending at No Other Pub.

“From the top down, this club has set a standard about what it takes to be a part of the club, and it trickles down to the fans. They embrace it. They know what it takes,” Zusi said via phone interview last Wednesday.

Fans quickly filled slots for the recent blood drive. Fans sold out the Pitch Black event that benefitted the Victory Project at $300 per seat and opened their wallets and loosed their purse strings for game-worn jerseys and more in the recent online auction after the Kick Childhood Cancer match September 30th. Zusi’s jersey alone went for over $1,400. “I was shocked and super happy that my puny little jersey could raise so much,” he stated.

Yet the biggest signals are the ones that the fans take upon themselves. The Cauldron, the original and largest Sporting Kansas City supporters’ group, held its 2nd Annual Charity FootGolf Tournament on September 29, donating the proceeds to The Victory Project, even getting Sporting Legend Jimmy Conrad to come back to KC for the event.

Sporting Legend Jimmy Conrad (horizontal) and members of The Cauldron pose at the 2nd Annual Charity FootGolf Tournament.
Paige Houghton Photography

“The fanbase has been presented needs and have been extremely generous in helping fund and participate in and volunteer at,” said Sporting KC’s Chief Operating Officer Alan Dietrich.

Clearly fans identify with a Sporting Kansas City organization that is deeply imbedded in the community, “When you get to witness the impact on the child, that’s where it becomes real,” Dietrich observed.

Added Zusi, “It’s great to see the fans rally around these causes. It goes so much further than money. But that is a big part of it. These fans are giving whatever they can to these causes whether its money or time, they are doing it all.”

Change and Synergy

The amiable and passionate Brandi Thomas, Sporting KC’s former Director of Community Programs, is the matriarch of The Victory Project, having been its leader and face since its inception in 2013.

Thomas has had such an impact that as we closed our interview, Zusi took time to make sure Thomas got her do. “She’s been incredible,” he said.

As Thomas steps away from the position, questions naturally arise about the future of The Victory Project. But Dietrich, who has worked closely with Thomas from the start through his passion and nonprofit background, relayed that the future is in very able hands. Already deeply ensconced in The Victory Project with engaging partners as her main role, Ashley Green will take the helm. The relationships with partners and sponsors Green has cultivated will be critical as The Victory Project pushes current initiatives deeper and pursues new ones.

Increasing The Victory Project’s reach and impact will take many forms. To engage with more kids, Sporting Wishes is working with hospitals in the region. During the holidays, The Victory Project will host holiday parties, including one for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, in which they will impact about 500 families and provide food and games for the occasion. Next year, a race or running event is being planned. Partners and sponsors will be needed.

But what is most compelling and forward-looking is the synergy that The Victory Project has begun to groom. Across the two-state, Greater Kansas City area, there are many foundations that aim to assist kids and others as they battle the various forms of cancer. The problem is that these organizations may be getting in each other’s way through duplicating efforts or saturating the giving market. In the past year, The Victory Project reached out to 32 organizations in the region linked to helping kids with cancer or blood disorders. All came together at Sporting KC’s Three Points location where The Victory Project facilitated a sharing out of what each organization did.

“[The convocation was] enlightening for all and presented partnering opportunities,” Dietrich revealed. “We will continue these discussions to look for opportunities to fund and support others’ efforts and to allow Sporting Wishes to identify children that can be granted a wish.”

Full circle

The 32-year-old veteran Zusi was one who took the lead in supporting The Victory Project this season on the player side. That example has its impact within the side.

“I’m young, and for me it’s a great feeling [to support],” said 22-year-old homegrown Daniel Salloi. “Zusi won the Humanitarian Award, and as he accepted it [at the Pitch Black event], he almost cried. He did a little bit. And that means that it still means a lot to him.”

Continued Salloi, “When I came here, it was a shocker that a club can pay that much attention to charity and giving back to the community.”

Perhaps the second-year winger best summed up the impact of The Victory Project and Sporting Wishes on those beyond the cancer battling children that are its inspiration and focus when he said, “Thanks to Sporting for making us better people.”

Sporting Kansas City’s The Victory Project – Creating, and transcending, needed, precious tangible moments of intangible emotions as they foster a caring community for children battling cancer with only one goal in mind: Victory.