Guest Blog for Audrey Rose by Jim Walker
Celebrating Audrey Rose’s Benefactors and Friends
I am writing today for Audrey Rose to commend those wonderful people who reached out to Audrey and facilitated her Make A Wish happening with the San Francisco 49ers on October 2 2016.
There were of course many people whose involvement added immensely to the 49er’s decision to grant Audrey’s Make A Wish. One man stands out as one of the most positive and impactful people in Audrey’s challenged life: Mr. Joe Leonor, CEO of the NINER EMPIRE consisting of over 125 NINER EMPIRE Fan Chapters all over the world.
In order to understand the path that brought Audrey to Levis Stadium to sing our National Anthem in front of over 70,000 fans (standing room only) crowd, we need to look at Audrey’s story.
At Audrey’s 1st pre-birth ultrasound in mid 2006 the results forced the doctors to tell Audrey’s mother and I that she would likely be born dead. If not dead, she would be blue and dying and have to be rushed immediately to surgery. Twenty-five hospital personnel and several pieces of sophisticated equipment jammed her room WHILE Heather gave birth.
We didn’t see the Miracle occur, but when Audrey came into the world she was a beautiful pink and started her singing career immediately upon arrival! We DID get to hold Audrey and then she was transported to a hospital in San Francisco and underwent observation for three days and was released.
Another almost unreal blessing was that even though Audrey would die by age two with her severe heart condition / disease, the only doctor in the world who could save her life was thirty minutes north at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital on the Stanford University campus.
At nine months old Dr. Frank Hanley saved Audrey’s life with the first of three full open-heart surgeries utilizing a procedure he invented. Then, a strider (whistling sound) began in Audrey’s throat and was dismissed by hospital personnel until Dr. Peter just ‘happened’ to be walking by Audrey’s door and decided to stop in.
After asking permission to listen to her throat Dr. Koltai turned and yelled for a nurse to “prepare this girl for immediate emergency throat surgery”! We were packing up to leave, and had Dr. Koltai not taken the initiative to act upon his senses and training, Audrey would have gone home and died when her throat finished growing closed.
Audrey’s severe life-trials and challenges were to continue because even though she would be ok as long as the animal valves and shunts and other corrective procedures continued to work: Audrey was born without eyeballs and would have to move through life in total darkness.
Audrey’s daily life is one of enduring physical and emotional pain. She is shunned at school at recesses because she cannot participate in any of the games children play on the playground. Because she represents an unknown challenge to people unknowledgeable about blindness: she is also shunned by friends and has never been invited to a birthday party, playday, etc. Audrey walks into objects and gets physically hurt also every single day.
Strong beyond her years, Audrey rarely complains and has a most precocious, fun personality. Audrey loves challenges and so when asked to go onstage in front of four hundred people at a charity fundraiser Audrey jumped at the chance. You see, Audrey loved microphones and hearing her own voice at five years old! Audrey rocked the house and had everyone laughing and clapping in shared enjoyment with Audrey’s stage debut.
Two years later Camp Taylor asked Audrey to meet Colin Kaepernick onstage cold turkey with no knowledge of what was to happen in front of over four hundred people attending Colin Kaepernick’s 2nd Annual “Against All Odds” charity fundraiser for Camp Taylor, a heart camp that Audrey attended.
Audrey’s life has been enhanced by many people who have seen this video (and others) and reached out to Audrey to bless her with what they could provide. One such individual whose heart and giving nature facilitated Audrey’s Make A Wish, Mr. Joe Leonor.
Joe Leonor contacted me by email a little over a year ago and said he had seen Audrey’s video and wished to help her out with some blessings that he knew we could not afford. I had no idea at that time that Joe owned the NINER EMPIRE store in Foster City California and that he was the CEO of the largest fan base in the world! A box showed up two weeks later with the first San Francisco 49er’s gear to grace the Walker’ household in many a year!
Shortly thereafter Joe arranged for Audrey to sing in front of over three hundred men and women at a training conference in San Carlos. Amazingly the attendees passed the hat and started Audrey’s first fund-raising account. Audrey was almost overwhelmed by number of men and women who approached her afterwards and commended her on her fine job of singing. This was her first public appearance singing our National Anthem.
Audrey’s second National Anthem was sung at Joe Leonor’s 2nd Annual Empiree Awards ceremony, a broadcast that was Worldwide! Mr. Dennis Brown of the 1990’s 49ers Super Bowl teams not only commended Audrey; he let her try on his Super Bowl ring (making Daddy exceedingly jealous)! Little did Joe Leonor know that his kindness and proactive involvement in Audrey’s life would lead her to Levis stadium!
Mr. Steve Conway of the Scottish Heavy Athletics Association (Daddy competes in these games) twice gave Audrey the opportunity to sing. Once in Woodland California and then at the 150th Pleasanton Scottish Highland Games Heavy Events National Championships and Scottish festival put on by the San Francisco Caledonian Club. By their own testimonies, Audrey was credited with bringing to tears many of the toughest, strongest athletes in the world that early summer morning.
Audrey has had many unique occurrences in her life and besides being the only child in the world with her combination of severe disabilities, she also waited a year for her Make A Wish to occur. Because of the unique nature of her request, the 49ers had to delay her Wish from the fall of 2015 to the 2016 football season.
In the spring of 2016 San Francisco 49er Antoine Bethea graciously granted Audrey Rose the honor to be the first National Anthem singer at his annual charity softball tournament fundraiser. I was told that the decision was made based upon the videos of Audrey singing as a result of Mr. Joe Leonor.
In the interim, Audrey’s videos were viewed by all involved parties that led to Audrey ‘trying out’ in Levis Stadium on September 30th 2016. In front of over 100 San Francisco 49ers staff members Audrey gave singing a song many professional singers avoid because of it’s complexity her best shot.
Imagine the stress of doing this in a stadium where the sound reverberates off the walls and knowing that obtaining her dream: to make the 49ers and their fans happy with her singing, hung in the balance. All alone, not being able to see her parent’s supportive and strengthening smiles and waves, Audrey commenced to sing her challenged heart out on that fabled gridiron.
No one could tell by the spring in her step as Audrey was led in front of the cheering office personnel that she could hardly contain herself waiting for the 49ers‘s choice. Anyone in that immense stadium would have known the 49ers decision when the cheering overwhelmed everyone present and started those eyes tearing up again! Audrey was invited back two days later to do what few have ever done, sing our National Anthem in front of an over-capacity crowd at an official National Football League game while on world-wide television and internet broadcasts!
Joe Leonor and those few unique individuals who have reached out to support Audrey Rose never knew that their generosity and kindness to a severely handicapped little girl would lead to one of the most exciting, rewarding, self-worth and self-esteem building events anyone could ever imagine!