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Chicago Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster has made a name for himself as quite the jokester, and the guy does know how to get a laugh.
He's always "on," from doing a spot-on impression of legendary Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray, to performing stand-up comedy at Boston's Comedy Connection, attending a Chicago Blackhawks game dressed as Captain America, or trying to convince a reporter at the Arizona Daily Star that he is spending his offseason training to be a ninja.
Two years ago, Dempster and his wife, Jenny, received devastating news that tested their ability to smile and ultimately gave his jokes a purpose.
The Dempster family, including son Brady, now age 4, welcomed daughter Riley to the world on April 1, 2009. Within 48 hours, she had started shaking and wasn't swallowing, leading doctors to diagnose her with 22q11.2 Deletion Syndrome (or DiGeorge Syndrome) -- a genetic disorder believed to affect roughly one in every 2,000 children.
There is potential for 186 symptoms, including mood swings, immune system deficits, feeding and gastrointestinal difficulties, heart defects, kidney problems, hearing loss and growth delays.
Sometimes it's a little overwhelming, but I enjoy it. I think, too, it makes people think that it's not just some ballplayer up there, it's a person. I'm just as real as anyone else, and we have a real family and we go through dirty diapers and kids not sleeping and real issues, just like every parent at home, working a regular 9-to-5 job.” -- Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster on finding time to work at the foundation's events
Once diagnosed, Riley underwent numerous procedures, including surgeries to have a tracheal tube and a feeding tube inserted. She couldn't leave the hospital for more than two months -- the first 10 weeks of the Cubs' season.
"I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy," Dempster told the Chicago Sun Times in June 2009. "...I wouldn't wish the person I hate most in the world to go through that, because I wouldn't wish any little kid to have to go through that ...
"When your daughter's sitting there in the hospital, and she's been in there for two months now, there's an anger inside you because no little kid deserves that."
As Dempster watched his baby daughter struggle to stay alive, he struggled to stay focused on the mound. The more he and Jenny learned -- or found that they could not learn -- about 22q, the more they realized that they needed to shine a spotlight on this disorder.
Months earlier Dempster, who for years had given his time and money to numerous charities, had started the paperwork for his own foundation. He knew he wanted it to benefit children in some way, but he wasn't sure exactly what its focus would be.
"Six weeks later, Riley was born," Dempster, now 33, said. "So it was like somebody said, 'Oh here, you need something that needs attention, well, here's what it is.'"
The Dempster Family Foundation was born, with the intent to raise awareness of and support research for 22q as well as expand the number of facilities that treat the syndrome and help affected families pay medical costs. "We are blessed to have the resources and means to get [Riley] support for this disorder," said Jenny Dempster. "But we hear from others [who have recently been] diagnosed, and know there are many out there yet to be diagnosed, and this foundation is for them."
John and Liza Oates of Chicago, whose daughter Abby has 22q, have experienced firsthand how the foundation has changed the way people deal with the disorder. "[There is] awareness! Speech therapists, school staff, doctors, they are all much more educated once they [linked] our child's diagnosis with Ryan's foundation," Liza said.
Abby, who wasn't diagnosed until she was 4, has a congenital heart defect and a lung condition. Now 7, she threw out the ceremonial first pitch on April 22 at the foundation's "22q Day at the Ballpark" at Wrigley Field.
Liza says the Dempsters have been more than the face of a foundation, they've been friends. "They have welcomed us and our children into their home," she says. "They have celebrated Abby's victories. After Abby's second heart surgery last summer, it was very reassuring to know they were there for us, as shoulders to lean on as recovery was rough, and to share in our joy as she recovered."
Unlike athletes who only lend their names to a cause, Dempster is as hands-on as it gets with families and at foundation events. In the past, he has acted as auctioneer, poker dealer and the host of Trivia Night, asking questions and riffing on the answers for more than an hour.
He once even donned the short-shorts, high socks, red wig and headband of Jackie Moon, Will Ferrell's character in the movie "Semi-Pro," to entertain fans at halftime of a Loyola University men's basketball game.
If there's a job to be done at an event, Dempster wants to do it.
"To me, that's why it's all worth it," he said. "Sometimes it's a little overwhelming, but I enjoy it. I think, too, it makes people think that it's not just some ballplayer up there, it's a person. I'm just as real as anyone else, and we have a real family and we go through dirty diapers and kids not sleeping and real issues, just like every parent at home, working a regular 9-to-5 job."
By the time the foundation's inaugural grant cycle hit last year, Dempster had hooped, hustled and hawked his way to awarding $185,000 in grants to 14 charitable organizations related to 22q.
This year, Dempster made his first-ever Opening Day start for the Cubs -- and the honor happened to land on April 1, Riley's second birthday. Since those first few terrifying months, she has made incredible strides. She no longer has a tracheal tube for breathing or a full-time feeding tube; she eats all kinds of food with the rest of the family.
Jenny, who gave birth to the couple's third child, daughter Finley Annemarie, in January, said each day brings new discoveries and new challenges.
"A year ago, Riley was a year old with a trach, feeding tube and other medical issues," she said. "A year later, we are dealing with development and social issues. So I guess there really isn't 'everyday life' -- it changes day to day. But we continue to work through it and support Riley -- and she is doing great."
Little Riley has been through so much at such a young age, sometimes Dempster forgets that she's still just a 2-year-old kid. "When we came down here [to Mesa, Ariz., for spring training], she had to have an intravenous line in her arm," he said. "We went to the Whole Foods [grocery store] and she wiped out, just fell, and this lady sees this cord and everything and she looked at me, and she looked at [Riley] and she had this look of panic on her face, like 'Oh my God!'"
"The thing that went through my head was like, 'Oh that? That? That's nothing. That's a speed bump compared to what she's been through.' And I guess we've been through so much as a family ... that sometimes I probably take for granted the little bumps and bruises."
No doubt there will be more bumps and bruises for Riley, but it seems clear that Dempster will always be there for a laugh, even when his daughter is fighting through the tough stuff. He wants to play baseball for as long as he can, and then retire to be with his family.
"Whatever Charlie Sheen is doing right now," Dempster said of his future, "I'm gonna try to do completely the opposite."