The assignment: Write a letter to a hero or someone you admire and see if that person writes you back.
Ty Vankilsdonk, 12, addressed his letter to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, which may be a common choice for sixth-grade boys in places like Turlock or Sacramento or Santa Cruz but was a unique one in his hometown.
The Vankilsdonks live in Green Bay, Wisc. In fact, Ty’s house is two blocks from Lambeau Field, so deep in the heart of Packers Country that Ty and his brothers would earn extra money on Sundays by directing cars to parking spaces before Packers games.
Ty, however, decided early in his life that he was a 49ers fan and was especially loyal to Kaepernick. He wore No. 7 on his youth league teams. He named his dog “Colin Kaepernick.”
Never miss a local story.
He got an “A” on his classroom assignment.
The 49ers quarterback wrote him back, and the plan was to surprise Ty with the letter from his hero when the new school year began in the fall.
He never read it. Ty suffered an acute asthma attack on Aug. 24 and died the following day at St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay.
What happened next was a rare gesture.
The hospital approached his family about organ donation, something his father, Tim Vankilsdonk, said he was instinctively uncomfortable doing.
“All my life I believed in not donating my organs,” he said. “I figured I came into this world with them and I’d leave with them.”
But in the hospital, Tim thought about his son and what he would have wanted. Ty was the type of kid who would run ahead to hold a door open for older people. When Tim woke up early one morning to clean up the backyard following a graduation party, he found it had already been picked up. Ty had woken up earlier.
“I knew exactly how Ty was and how he would like to help other kids have a more fulfilling life so they could run around or breathe more easily,” Tim said. “So in the end, my eyes were closed all these years and after this whole incident, this tragedy, my eyes are very much opened now.”
Ty donated his liver, both kidneys, his pancreas and two heart valves. One of the valves went to a patient – appropriately – in San Francisco.
Organ donations are slowly rising in the United States, said Trey Schwab, outreach coordinator at the University of Wisconsin Health Organ and Tissue Donation. The last few states without registries created them within the last year and a half, and 123 million Americans are donors.
“But the waiting list is growing exponentially fast,” Schwab said. “We’ve got over 123,000 people waiting for organs today, and over 100,000 of those are waiting on kidneys. It’s unfortunate. There are 21 people who die every day waiting for a transplant because we don’t have enough organs.”
What’s more, pediatric donors are scarce. Children simply don’t die at a very high rate and parents, suddenly dealing with the worst event in their lives, are reluctant to give their blessing when asked about donations.
Of the 6,383 donors nationwide this year, only 629 were under age 18. Meanwhile, approximately 16 percent of those on organ waiting lists are under 18.
Ty Vankilsdonk was such an ardent 49ers fan that he was dressed in Kaepernick’s jersey and a 49ers cap during the funeral. Of course, there are none of those around Green Bay. The family went online and placed an express order so the items would arrive in time for the service.
When Schwab read the obituary in the local papers, he wrote a letter to the 49ers to let them know about the passing of such a dedicated fan.
The 49ers responded by sending a real Kaepernick jersey, one signed by the quarterback and with “Vankilsdonk’ on the nameplate. Coach Jim Harbaugh also was moved by the youngster’s story and wrote his own letter to the family.
“You start reading about the youngster and you get the picture of someone that just lights up all that he touches,” Harbaugh said Thursday. “Then the idea that professional football players are heroes. Then you start thinking, ‘The real heroes are this youngster right here and his family.’ ”
Last Friday, the family returned to St. Vincent Hospital to meet and thank the staff that cared for Ty and also to help increase awareness about organ donation. With a little help from the 49ers, it was a packed event.
“When we have something like this, we never know if media is going to come or not,” Schwab said. “When all three TV stations showed up, it was like, ‘Wow, this is a nice deal for the family.’ I think they were really proud of their son that day.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.