Within the depths of Red Bull Arena, the cries and cheering of the crowd can be heard echoing around the halls as the game kicks off. But the main attraction is sitting in the press area, excitedly buzzing around the room.
That little ball of energy is Darius Ziabakhsh, and he has just gotten some of the most exciting news of his life. He and his family have been selected as one of eight U.S. families that will participate in the opening ceremonies at the 2016 Rio Olympics as part of the McDonald's Olympics Kids Program.
And after everything that Darius had been through — pain, numerous hospital visits, adjusting to life’s challenges — it’s a welcome break.
Darius is a bubbly 9 year old with a tangled mess of brown hair. If you saw him, you’d think he was just like every other kid. But he was born with VACTERL Association, a disease that can result in major spinal and cardiac problems.
Darius’ disease has kept him inside hospitals and away from his home in New Jersey for much of his life. But there is one thing that keeps him from dreading his next hospital visit: Ronald McDonald House Charities.
A Ronald McDonald House operates as a “home away from home” for sick children and their families while the hospitalized child is getting treatment. The houses allow families to stay at little to no cost.
The houses also provide a real sense of community for kids and their families. This makes it easier to form bonds during dark times. Darius met one of his best friends at the Cincinnati Ronald McDonald House, and their families have kept in touch since.
“One of our parents here uses the term oasis and it just kind of really resonates with me,” says Jennifer Goodin. She operates the Ronald McDonald House in Cincinnati where Darius spends most of his time. “It’s really a home that takes care of and supports and embraces the whole family while they’re going through such difficult times while their kids are sick.”
Tracy Smith, Darius’ mother, calls the Cincinnati house a place of love. It represents a place of smiles and happiness that takes their mind off the pain and struggles of life.
“Sometimes I like it because, when I’m not in pain, it feels a lot better,” Darius says. “And even when I’m in pain, I have a lot of fun. I stay occupied and it feels like I don’t have pain.”
That atmosphere is something Goodin and her colleagues have been working to perfect for years. She wants to provide the closest thing to home for these families. But she’s not the only one who works closely with the Ronald McDonald House.
Julie Foudy and Darius live on the on opposite sides of the country. But you’d be hard pressed to find someone more excited to meet the 9 year old. Foudy partners with the Ronald McDonald House Charities every summer during her leadership academy and will be walking out with Darius and the other seven American children when they get to Rio.
The excitement in Foudy’s voice is clear when Darius’ name pops up in conversation. She’s as thrilled to meet these kids as they are to go to Rio, and her affection for the houses goes far beyond her yearly camps.
“For the kids to be able to meet hundreds of other kids and the Ronald McDonald House families that are coming, it’s just amazing,” Foudy says. “Having visited so many different Ronald McDonald houses, that to me, to give your kids that opportunity to walk with all these other kids and be a part of it — I feel really lucky and blessed in that regard.”
One of the key factors in Foudy’s camps is to emphasize leadership through sports. She also believes that reaching out and helping others is important. That’s why one of the mandatory events for her campers is to volunteer for at least one day of the week-long camp.
During their day of volunteering, each camper visits a Ronald McDonald House, a community center, or a senior center and choose an activity to take part in. This provides a special moment for not just the volunteers but also the people they’re helping.
If her campers can take one day to help out people in need, it could mean the world to some of these families and it exposes younger kids to the impact of volunteering and helping out in the community.
Going to Rio is a Dream
Back in Red Bull Arena, the interview has ended and Darius hasn’t been able to sit still since hearing the news. He eagerly paces the room, going between his mom and his brother in a customized Red Bulls jersey presented to him during the announcement in front of the crowd.
He speaks in short bursts about his anticipation to get to Rio and how happy he is that all of this is happening to him.
Few kids could handle VATERL association the way Darius does. The smile hasn’t left his face for close to 15 minutes. His excited whispering with his brother is enough to put a smile on anyone’s face.
For the Ronald McDonald House, this is about giving back to one of its most frequent visitors. And for Darius, this is the experience of a lifetime.
Don’t expect him to stop buzzing until he lines up with the other seven Americans in the Maracaña on August 5.
Photos: Twitter (group shot), courtesy of McDonald's New York Metro Region (Darius with statue, Darius soccer, Darius reaction)