As five-year old Wyatt Hagele sat courtside at the United Center and watched members of the Chicago Bulls warmup before a game, all his mother could think about is how far he had come.
Chicago Bulls

Bulls partner with Jewel-Osco for Embrace-a-Bulls program’s fourth season

By Adam Fluck | 03.24.2015

As five-year old Wyatt Hagele sat courtside at the United Center and watched members of the Chicago Bulls warmup before a game, all his mother could think about is how far he had come.

Just two days earlier, Wyatt had been released from the hospital, where he had been admitted three weeks prior in critical condition. He was scarred -- physically and mentally -- from a fire in his home and it shook the young boy and his family tremendously.

Coming to see the Bulls was the first so-called normal activity he had enjoyed since that fateful night. And as he smiled as player after player came by to say hello and sign an autograph or pose for a photo, another success story of the Embrace-a-Bulls program was beginning to unfold.

The Bulls and Jewel-Osco are working together to support Embrace-a-Bulls, which is dedicated to providing families who have a member with challenging medical conditions an opportunity to experience a game like VIPs. The program gives everyone in the family – the patient, children, parents, relatives or close friends – the chance to get some relief from their current circumstances, even for a moment, to enjoy special time together.

The experience that Wyatt and his family enjoyed is exactly what Nancy Reinsdorf and Leslie Forman, president and vice president of Chicago Bulls Charities, envisioned when they created it four years ago. It’s a commitment to helping out a family that has recently endured a hardship.

For Wyatt and his family, that started in the early morning hours of February 10, when Misty Hagele awoke to the smell of smoke. A fire had broken out in one of her children’s bedrooms.

Her husband ran downstairs to check on the fireplace in an attempt to find the root of the fire. Three of the five children in the house made it outside safely.

Misty went after the other two, her seven-year old daughter and Wyatt. She scooped them up, rushed down the stairs, exited through the back door, and collapsed. Four days later, she awoke in the hospital.

While Misty was released shortly thereafter, Wyatt, who suffered severe heat burns on roughly a third of his body, spent three weeks at Loyola University Medical Center.

Throughout, Wyatt’s parents, step-parents and grandparents all took turns staying bedside and at the Ronald McDonald House near Loyola. It was invaluable for the family members to have a place they could collectively call home while remaining in close proximity to the hospital.

“They live about two hours away and without the Ronald McDonald House, there would be a lot of travel and headaches,” explains Ben Morgridge, director of community engagement for Ronald McDonald House. “What we see with all our kids, Wyatt included, is that with the family close by and able to literally wake up and walk across the street to the hospital in the morning to be with their child, helps the whole family heal together. Children heal 31 percent faster with their family present.”

“We felt like it was too good to be true,” says Misty.

Fast forward to when Wyatt was released from the hospital and just two nights later, there he was at his first Bulls game. The family arrived two hours before tipoff and was immediately brought down to the court.

They sat on the Bulls bench and met half the roster as they came and went. They took a photo at center court. They received a $500 Jewel-Osco gift card and goody bags from the Bulls. A scoreboard message was displayed and they sat in some of the best seats in the house.

“It’s been so overwhelming,” acknowledges Misty. “Nothing like this has ever happened to us. We’ve had such a hard time as of late. In January, we lost three family members. We were already emotionally broken and then the fire broke us more. So to be here, it’s really something.

“I can’t express my gratitude enough,” Misty adds. “It was the best night of our lives considering what we have been through. For the Bulls to reach out to us is heartwarming and we’re never going to forget it. I’ll support them until the day I die now.”

“For the Bulls and other groups who contribute to do this kind of things provides the family with an awesome distraction,” says Morgridge, who accompanied Wyatt and his family at the game. “These families are going though one of the worst times in their lives. So to have a team like the Bulls and their players to show that they really care and they’re rooting for them, it gives the whole family something to rally behind and cheer about. It helps rejuvenate their spirit and get them excited again, almost back to normal. In some cases, beyond normal, with everything that’s happened tonight.”

Ronald McDonald House Charities, Wyatt’s family’s once-temporary home, is one of several charitable partners the Bulls work with to identify families to be a part of the Embrace-a-Bulls program. So far this season, other groups from across Chicagoland include Advocate Children’s Hospital, Bear Necessities, Cancer Wellness Center, Gilda’s Club, La Rabida Children’s Hospital, Lurie Children’s Hospital, Make-A-Wish and RUSH University Health Care.

“All these local organizations go above and beyond to support and empower not only the patients, but their families as well,” says Tina Garon, marketing director at Jewel-Osco. “Whether it's a childhood illness or a cancer diagnosis, these groups have shown that the patient does not have to face these life-altering events alone. Like the Chicago Bulls and Jewel-Osco, every one of these organizations believes in the concept of teamwork and working towards a mutual goal.”

Being part of the Embrace-a-Bulls program also allows Jewel-Osco the opportunity to embrace a local team that their customers are so passionate about.

“We literally jumped at the chance to partner with the Chicago Bulls on this community-focused, patient-centered project,” Garon explains. “This initiative ties-in perfectly with Jewel-Osco's stated mission of ‘Keepin' it Fresh and Keepin' it Local’. The Embrace-a-Bulls program is a great way to offer a special VIP experience that will always remain fresh in the minds of local patients and their families. It truly is a win-win for everyone involved.”