Soccer Players Savor Children's Hospital Visits

Oct. 23, 2008

STANFORD, Calif. - Josh Nesbit says he never has trouble finding volunteers to visit the patients at the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.

'It's really really easy,' he said.

As a senior goalkeeper for the Stanford University men's soccer team, one of Nesbit's roles is to help arrange service projects. Perhaps the most popular are the regular visits to Lucile Packard.

The Packard Children's Hospital is a non-profit hospital devoted entirely to the care of babies, children, adolescents and expectant mothers. There are more than 650 physicians and 4,750 staff support and volunteers on the Welch Road facility just off campus.

Most days, there are more than 250 patients, with a capacity for 272. Some may stay merely overnight for relatively minor afflictions. And some may remain for long periods because of more serious situations such as transplants, surgeries or life-threatening illnesses.

Either way, there is a need for comfort and companionship for often scared and lonely young people. That companionship is what the Stanford soccer team has tried to provide.

Bret Simon got the idea shortly after taking over as head coach at Stanford in 2001. While coach at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., Simon steered his players toward similar volunteer work with children in hospitals in that area.

Because of that background and that Simon's wife, Pam, was working there as a pediatric nurse practitioner in oncology, the connection seemed natural.

The team got in touch with the hospital's Child Life department, which trains and oversees volunteer services, and a relationship was born.

'Guys started visiting and they really enjoyed it,' Simon said.

At first, the visits were sporadic. But over the years, they've become weekly ventures organized by the team council, a group of leaders representing each graduating class.

For the past two years, Nesbit has taken on the role of spearheading the visits, which typically take place on Mondays and last an hour or two.

'In the four years I've been here, a good chunk of what we've done in terms of a community-service presence has been spending time at the Children's Hospital,' Nesbit said.

Players will rotate, with about three or four arriving at a time. Mostly, they'll hang out with the kids in a large recreation room called the Forever Young Zone, which was built with money donated by the Forever Young Foundation, created by former 49ers quarterback Steve Young.

Inside are video games, toys, and art supplies. Free play mixes with structured activities. In such a relaxing environment, the Stanford players join in with their new friends in a variety of activities.

'Everyone's all tired at the end of practice when we go over there,' Nesbit said. 'But afterward, they've got a new energy. It's always a positive experience.'

Providing companionship is enough in itself, but Nesbit said he believes being on the soccer team adds a special significance for the patients.

'Usually, you go into a patient's room and they'll give you a small smile, because they know someone's there,' Nesbit said. 'Then, the nurse might say, `This is Josh, he's on the Stanford soccer team.' And this enormous grin will break out, always.

'It seems like every single kid in that hospital plays or loves soccer.'

It's not hard to fall for these kids, if only to admire and appreciate their spirit in sometimes very difficult circumstances.

That happened immediately to Nesbit, who was greatly affected by his first visit, when he met a 7-year-old girl with leukemia. She had just returned from Hawaii, where she swam with dolphins in a dream fulfilled by the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

'She was just as happy playing Candyland with me as she was in Hawaii,' he said. 'She told me every detail of her trip just perfectly.'

There's never a shortage of volunteers among the Stanford soccer players, who love to go when they can, and have even seen patients at their games.

For Nesbit, the visits are 'a win-win situation,' he said. They help the patients forget their troubles and help the players escape the pressures of school and soccer, if only for a little while.

'It's as meaningful for us as it is for them,' he said. 'You step outside of the Stanford bubble and into the lives of these kids. There's no way you can't be re-charged, for school, soccer, or life.'