FORT MYERS, Fla. — Ryan Dempster decided in 2009 that he wanted to establish a charitable foundation. The legal paperwork was easy enough, but picking a specific cause to support required more thought.
Since his days as a minor league player, when he volunteered to speak at elementary schools and Little League banquets, Dempster had supported various organizations and endeavors. His commitment increased over the years as he became more established in baseball.
“We have a great opportunity as athletes to give back,” said Dempster, who in December signed a two-year contract with the Red Sox. “But all I really knew when we started the foundation was that it would involve helping kids.”
In April of that year, the righthander’s decision was made for him. His second child, a daughter named Riley, was born with 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, a genetic condition that can cause a wide range of health and developmental disorders.
Experts estimate that as many as 1 in 2,000 babies are affected by 22q, making it second only to Down syndrome in rate of occurrence. But 22q often goes undiagnosed for weeks, months, or ever at all.
22q can manifest itself in 180 different ways, according to the latest studies, from heart defects to hearing loss and learning disabilities. No two children are affected the same way.
Riley did not come home from the hospital for more than two months. She required a tube in her trachea to assist in swallowing and another for food. But she was fortunate that doctors quickly identified what she had.
“We were really blessed to go through what Riley went through with money and with connections and resources that a lot of people don’t have,” Dempster said. “It was always like we felt a little responsibility to help those parents and those kids.”
The mission of the newly minted Dempster Family Foundation became clear. For parents with children struck by a mysterious condition and health care professionals trying to make sense of it, it would soon become a beacon.
Dempster has never taken an easy route. As a pitcher, he has been a starter for 11 of his 15 seasons but also a closer for four seasons who was good enough to save 33 games for the Cubs in 2005.
He was an All-Star at the age of 23 then not again until he was 31. Along the way he has been released once and traded three times.
At 35, Dempster joins the Red Sox rotation as the No. 3 starter, somebody expected to provide stability to a group badly in need of it.
“He is a grinder, a real pro,” teammate John Lackey said. “There’s a lot of respect for Ryan around the game. He gets after it.”
The same is true off the field. Plenty of people think they are funny, but Dempster got on stage at the old Comedy Connection at Faneuil Hall one night in 2001 when the Marlins were in Boston. He told jokes for eight minutes and got laughs.
“Kind of terrifying,” he said. “But I wanted to see if I could do it.”
When it came to his charity work, Dempster looked beyond the superficial efforts made by so many athletes. He desired to make a true impact.
“I always wanted it to be bigger than just locally,” he said. “I wanted it to be something national. I have this great public platform to speak about it and hopefully to help a lot of the families going through the same thing.”
Riley was born on April 1, 2009, five days before the Cubs started their season. Dempster had to find a way to help care for his fragile newborn daughter while dealing with the travel demands that baseball brings.
“Sometimes the baseball field is a place to get away, but not always,” he said. “The times it was toughest, when I was struggling a little bit, I felt like maybe my emotions, I wore them on my sleeve a little bit.
“I kept it inside for such long time and felt like I needed to get it out, not just for myself but for the other families.”
Dempster and his wife Jenny turned to a family friend, Michelle Breedlove Sells, to run their foundation. But they were involved on all levels, particularly in connecting to other families.
“Jenny hit the nail on the head with Riley, talking to other parents on websites and chat rooms,” Dempster said. “We’ve had families to our home for birthday parties. You have a common bond. Baseball is completely irrelevant to that.”
According to annual financial reports submitted to the Internal Revenue Service, the Dempster Family Foundation raised $1.591 million from 2009-11 and contributed $523,273 in the form of grants to fund clinics, summer camps, and conferences.
The balance has been used largely to fund a national campaign to raise awareness of 22q and foster a network of families.Continued...