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Man’s quest is linking heroes with sick kids

It was in those final weeks when the cancer was winning the fight with John Challis that Steve Wetzel found his calling.

Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon would text to see how John was feeling.

Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Adam LaRoche would call to see how John was doing.

“That meant so much to John,” Wetzel said. “It would help him get through his day.”

There are plenty of programs available for children suffering from a terminal illness, programs that bring children and athletes together.

But what happens when those children are in their last days? Where do the celebrities go?

Wetzel has the answer.

To the Hero Program.

Wetzel and his partner, Brooks Canavesi, started the non-profit organization to help provide services to bedridden terminally ill children and their families.

He’s hoping to form a network of athletes, musicians, artists — anyone, really — who is interested in a home visit that would help alleviate the suffering.

Wetzel, the baseball coach at Freedom High in Freedom, Pa., and Canavesi have been in Clearwater since Thursday. They spent Friday with the Rays in Dunedin, spending time on the field during batting practice and chatting with Jason Hammel in the Rays’ bullpen during the first few innings of the Rays game against the Blue Jays.

The two were at McKechnie Field on Saturday. Wetzel visited Adam LaRoche in the Pirates’ clubhouse before the game. LaRoche, who got to know Challis last summer, told Wetzel that he will do whatever he could to help Hero Program.

“Adam LaRoche is a rock star,” said Wetzel, offering his highest compliment.

So too, Wetzel said, is Maddon.

The two text each other nearly every day.

“Joe is one of the top-five people in my life,” Wetzel said. “Joe is one of the most genuine people in baseball, and if the most-genuine person in baseball believes in you, that’s credibility.”

It was Maddon who saw ESPN’s moving piece on Challis last June and invited Challis and his family to the Rays-Pirates game at PNC Park the following weekend.

It’s Challis’ high school jersey that hangs in a frame on a wall inside Maddon’s office at Tropicana Field. It’s the red band that says “Courage + Believe = Life” which Maddon wears on his left wrist all day every day.

That was how Challis lived the last two years of his life after he was diagnosed with cancer. The cancer may kill him, Challis would say, but it would never beat him.

Challis died last August. He was 17.

During those final days of Challis’ life, Wetzel kept asking himself the same question, “Am I doing enough? Am I doing enough?”

Wetzel helped launch the John Challis Courage for Life Foundation. Still, he wanted to do more.

“I believe John and I got close for a reason,” Wetzel said. “John asked me before he passed to continue to help children, and I want to make John proud.”

Those who sign up for the Hero Program will receive wrists bands with a number that will enable them to stay in contact with a child through text messages sent to the program’s web site, heroprogram.org.

“He came up with a very good idea,” Maddon said. “I don’t think we realize the impact we can make.”

This, Wetzel said, is his calling.

He’s hoping with the help of “rock stars” like Maddon and LaRoche, Hero Program will help ease the lives of terminally ill children.

“I’m 32 years old,” Wetzel said. “I have a lot of years to do good things, I hope.”

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