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"Once in a lifetime" | Nonprofit hosts unique gameday experience for East TN Children's Hospital patients

Special Spectators are asking people to text the families words of encouragement. Text "VOLS" to 855-933-4321. Words of support will be added to a virtual scrapbook.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — For Vols fans, the last place you want to spend gameday is in a hospital bed. One organization is helping 17 young fans leave the East Tennessee Children's Hospital so they could get a spot on the sidelines.

Special Spectators is a non-profit that creates gameday experiences for seriously ill children and their families at collegiate athletic events. On Saturday, the organization arranged a whole itinerary for the children including tailgating with a bouncy house, walking behind the players in the Vol Walk and hanging out on the sidelines before kickoff.

“The kids will be watching the guys warm up during pregame warmups, just arm's length away from these huge players right on the sidelines,” said Blake Rockwell, the founder and executive director of Special Spectators.

A few of the kids were close enough to throw a football back and forth with one of the players.

This is the 16th year that Special Spectators has held an event for the kids at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. However, the organization itself has been around for 20 football seasons. They have attended over 500 games with over 10,000 patients across the country.

“We've been partnering with East Tennessee Children's Hospital and the Tennessee Athletic Department since 2005,” Rockwell said.

Haddie Halter is one of the children who enjoyed Saturday night’s game day event. She is 4 years old.

“This is like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. She's probably going grow up being a massive UT fan after this,” said John Halter, Haddie’s dad.

The Halter family has had a rough couple of years.

"We were in the hospital for so long dealing with leukemia, and now to see her, it's a blessing," Halter said.

Haddie was so excited to be at the event. She said she really enjoyed the bouncy house at the tailgate. 

"She's a firecracker. She's Miss personality. That's who she is," Halter said.

Rockwell said he loves to see it. 

"For a parent, to see a child smile for the first time in a long time. And even for a child to recognize that their parents are also smiling for the first time in a long time, that's why we do this," Rockwell said.

Special Spectators hopes that other people in the community will get involved, too. They want to flood families with words of encouragement and support as they continue to fight battles in the East Tennessee Children's Hospital. 

 Text "VOLS" to 855-933-4321 to send your kind words. All the messages will be added to a virtual scrapbook that will be given to the families.

Credit: WBIR