Isabelle Petit, a patient in pediatric oncology at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, couldn’t stop smiling Friday as she presented her idol, four-time Olympic swimming medalist and University alum Peter Vanderkaay, with the second annual Mott Champions for Children Award.
Vanderkaay — who won a bronze medal in the 400-meter freestyle at this summer’s Olympic Games in London — began volunteering at the hospital during his freshman year at the University. As a member of the men’s swim team, he won 14 Big Ten Conference titles and was named Big Ten Swimmer of the Year during his junior year.
At the event, held at the Wayne and Shelly Jones Family Center, Vanderkaay was honored for his time spent volunteering with patients and families, as well as the personal contributions he has made to the hospital and the time he’s spent fundraising.
“It means a lot because he gets to take time off of everything and come visit us,” Petit said, a swimmer herself.
Vanderkaay said he started volunteering about ten years ago as part of the Athletic Department’s From the Heart program, a non-profit organization that brings University athletes to Mott to meet with children and their families, and quickly developed a personal interest in helping the hospital.
“This feels like home for me,” Vanderkaay said. “I’ve just met so many great people through coming to the hospital and some of the visits, that it’s just become a part of my life.”
The swimmer encouraged University students to become more involved in volunteering while at school.
“You see a lot of kids in here who are dealing with some very real issues, and you can try to make that a little bit better for them, even if it’s just for five minutes,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be anything really profound or starting an organization, but just volunteering and doing little things helps in the grand scheme of everything.”
About 25 people, including Vanderkaay’s parents and brother, attended the event. Chris Dickinson, interim executive director for the C.S. Mott Children’s and Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital, presented Vanderkaay with his award.
“He’s such a wonderful supporter of the hospital,” Dickinson said. “I’m sure he’s got a thousand things to do rather than come here and spend time with us.”
After a photo session with some of the attendees, Vanderkaay passed around his Olympic medals — two golds and two bronzes — for the children to hold, before visiting patients on various floors.
Inside the Child Life Activity Room, the Olympian sat with about a dozen patients who were painting wooden chameleons. As he passed out replica gold medals, one child exclaimed “My very own real gold!”
Children and parents alike said they were excited to meet the swimmer, including Evan Wood, a swimmer and paitent in pediatric oncology.
“It’s just a lot of fun, shaking his hand,” Wood said.
Jackie Bostwick, whose son is a patient in the hospital, said she found Vanderkaay to be a role model for the patients.
“He’s represented our country (in the Olympics) quite well,” Bostwick said. “I just think he’s a good figure for these kids.”
Vanderkaay’s father, Mark Vanderkaay, said he was proud of his son’s contributions to the hospital.
“He’s being recognized for being able to give back to kids, sick kids,” Vanderkaay said. “(He’s) trying to bring a little happiness into their lives, I think it’s awesome.”
The first Champions for Children Award was given to former University football player Charles Woodson last year, who donated $2 million dollars to the hospital in 2009.
Though Vanderkaay moved to Florida about 18 months ago, he said he will be in town for a few days and attended the football game against Air Force.
“I loved being here,” Vanderkaay said. “I’ll be a Wolverine for life.”