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Before four years ago, the date November 19 didn’t have particularly special meaning for the Hann family of Egg Harbor, N.J. There are no prominent national holidays on November 19, except for perhaps National Play Monopoly Day and the oddly specific National Carbonated Beverage With Caffeine Day. But in 2015 everything changed, and since then November 19 each year has and will never be quite the same for them.
November 19, 2015, was when United States Army Private Second Class Christopher J. Castaneda died while on deployment in Iraq. That shocking news left the Hann family, including his mom Andrea, stepdad Tim, and then 12-year-old brother Matthew, as survivors. As anyone who has lost loved ones knows, you never quite fully “rebound” from such tragedy but instead learn how to live your life differently. One thing that’s different are the anniversaries, or “angelversaries,” of the loved one’s death, which can bring a range of different and challenging emotions.
This year, November 19 began for the family a bit like the previous year’s November 19 but ended very differently. That’s because Charlotte Hornets power forward Cody Zeller surprised them with a shopping spree at the NBA Store in New York City. Matt, who is now 16-years-old, said that he “didn’t expect any such thing. I got a call to come to the NBA store here and had an open mind about what might happen.” On his list of possibilities was not: there will be a seven-foot, seven-year NBA veteran waiting to then shop with you for sneakers and apparel. Oh, and at the end of the shopping, you will get tickets to the next day’s Hornets versus Brooklyn Nets game from Zeller and participate in a pregame shoot-around with the team.
Yeah, such events don’t typically happen when you go to an apparel and sporting goods store. But the Tragedy Assistance Program, otherwise known as TAPS, chose the Hann family for this surprise. As Jessica Harper, Director of Operations for Sports and Entertainment for TAPS, explained, “TAPS provides support and assistance for surviving families of military deceased.” Unfortunately, there is no shortage of families needing such assistance. She relayed that “In 2018, more than 6,000 newly bereaved loved ones came to us for care. That is 17 new survivors each day.”
Here is video from TAPS on their program:
Andrea Hann said that the TAPS services have included, “grief camps. Matt has been attending them. They have also provided peer mentors. All of these activities have been very therapeutic.” The mentorship program has been especially helpful since losing a loved one so young and so suddenly places you in a fairly exclusive club that you didn’t want to join. The club is even smaller when it comes to losing someone who was in the midst serving in the military. It can be hard to find other people who can relate, who share the same experiences. As a member of this club since 2015, Andrea also now serves as a TAPS Peer Mentor so that she can help other families with her unique perspective.
“TAPS provides an array of programs, services, and support for the families of the fallen,” said Harper. “Each year, TAPS holds more than 200 programs that welcome and support thousands of participants.” This includes a 24/7 telephone helpline, because you just never know when your emotions will take you on a behind-the-back dribble or a fast break. “We answer more than 19,000 calls to our National Military Survivor Helpline and make over 28,000 survivors outreach calls each year,” Harper described. “We share our expertise, conducting nearly 200 training session on grief trauma and suicide postvention for military commands and other professionals across America around the world.”
Harper’s title is a giveaway that TAPS also has a Sports & Entertainment Department. their programs include Stars4TAPS and teams4taps, which connect surviving military families with those in the entertainment and professional sports worlds such as the NBA. Zeller also helps with the TAPS Good Grief Camp, which not only makes you think of Charlie Brown but also enables families to further build their support networks. As Zeller described, “All the TAPS families come together. We hold a basketball camp there. It’s a cool program that helps the families, who are heroes for the sacrifices that they have made for our country.”
Zeller’s surprise for the Hann family came four days after the NBA had concluded its Hoops for Troops Week. A collaboration between NBA Cares, TAPS and members of local military installations, this week included various events to honor both service members and surviving families such as a wheelchair basketball game. Former NBA star Buck Williams and former WNBA star Taj McWilliams-Franklin served as honorary coaches for the game. Another example of an event was the game and clinic hosted by the Brooklyn Nets for service members at Fort Hamilton featured in this video:
Zeller will also be assisting TAPS through his new “Kicks for Kids” initiative that’s part of the “Like A Child Foundation” that he launched on November 7. During five NBA games this season, Zeller will wear pairs of sneakers specially designed by kids to raise awareness and funds for various charities. Here’s a tweet with his first set:
In January for games in Washington, DC, the beneficiary will be TAPS. He told me, “I basically stole the idea of wearing custom-designed shoes for charity from the NFL.” Of course, “stole” is a harsh word for something done for charity, but don’t worry, Cody, I won’t tell anyone that you did.
You never forget the day that someone close to you died. Such an event changes your life and that day each year forever. From then on, that day is no longer just National Play Monopoly Day. It is a day that each year can bring a flood of different emotions and memories. Perhaps Zeller’s surprise will bring some new memories for future November 19’s for the Hann family. As Matt related, “today was amazing. TAPS is cool. I was very surprised. It was perfect.”