When the Atlanta Falcons finalized the trade for Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez in April, the team brought more to the city than a renowned professional athlete with a record-breaking, 12-year NFL career that includes an unprecedented 10 trips to the Pro Bowl. The Falcons also introduced Atlanta to a caring humanitarian who is eager to share a very special organization with the residents of his new hometown.
“Through my own personal experience, I fully understand the importance of building a lifelong foundation for understanding, tolerance and compassion,” Gonzalez says when talking about the Shadow Buddies Foundation, an organization that provides educational and emotional support to seriously ill or medically challenged children by presenting them with condition-specific dolls that are designed to be a friend “just like me.” The Buddies are the brainchild of Executive Director Marty Postlethwait, whose son Miles was born premature with numerous congenital defects that required multiple surgeries and hospital stays over the years. Miles’ desire for a companion who could understand what he was going through inspired his mother to create one for him—and for other ailing children in similar situations.
Postlethwait founded the Kansas-based Shadow Buddies Foundation in 1994; today, the organization features 24 buddies that represent different conditions, from heart defects and cancer to diabetes and burns. “Our Shadow Buddies aren’t about providing a cure—they’re about giving hope and a sense of compassion and understanding to children when they’re going through a difficult time,” Postlethwait says.
Gonzalez adopted the Shadow Buddies charity after his rookie year in Kansas City and made it one of the main programs of his own organization, the Tony Gonzalez Foundation. To date, more than 47,500 Tony Gonzalez Shadow Buddies have been distributed throughout the country, each one wearing a licensed Kansas City Chiefs’ hospital gown with Gonzalez’s name and number 88. Now, however, the adorable, medium skin-toned, dark-haired dolls (reflecting Gonzalez’s ethnic background) will proudly don Atlanta Falcons’ red and black. “Now we have a whole new community to embrace. Of course, we hope you embrace Tony the way Kansas City did, and I think you will,” Postlethwait says. “I know that the kids and their families will thoroughly love his charity. And it’s a new beginning for us. We’re going to be able to come to Atlanta and touch the lives of many children.”
As the 2009-2010 season commenced, the Tony Gonzalez Foundation and the Shadow Buddies Foundation began working with metro Atlanta children’s hospitals to start distributing the Tony Gonzalez Shadow Buddies. When his schedule permits, Gonzalez will visit and personally present the dolls to young patients, autographing the Buddies and spending time with the children. As Gonzalez says, “Part of being a pro athlete is the responsibility of being a role model, which I honor and respect. I take pride in being the only NFL player to have my very own Shadow Buddy.”
That same type of pride certainly will be felt by everyone in Atlanta, from the athletic community to the public at large, as Gonzalez not only takes the Falcons to new levels, but also brings a bit of joy to kids throughout the city. As Postlethwait concludes, “It’s about having a positive outlook on life and giving children something that can help them look at themselves in a positive manner.”
Not Just For Kids Anymore
The Tony Gonzalez Foundation has expanded the Shadow Buddies concept to include senior citizens. Currently, there are three Senior Buddies given to older patients: heart, vision and day surgery. In addition, Tony Gonzalez Senior Buddies are distributed to nursing-home residents who are unable to have family visit them on a regular basis, providing them comfort and companionship. More than 5,400 dolls have been delivered since the program’s inception.