Fincher: ‘Kids should not be dying from heat illness’

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 575 views 

On the day that would have been her son’s 30th birthday, Rhonda Fincher had more answers than questions about the heat related illness that took her eldest child’s life 17 years ago.

Kendrick Fincher would have been 30 on Sunday (Feb. 5) if he hadn’t died in August of 1995. The man-sized boy — he was six-foot and 220 pounds at age 13 — suffered a heat stroke on his first day of eighth-grade football practice and died in the hospital 18 days later from multi-system organ failure.

A year later, Rhonda Fincher started the nonprofit Kendrick Fincher Hydration Foundation to promote proper hydration and educate parents and school officials about ways to prevent heat illness. In the process, Fincher says she’s learned a lot.

“I did not start the foundation to be my personal hobby,” Fincher said during an interview a few days ahead of Kendrick’s milestone birthday. “I did it to make a difference and prevent the deaths of other children and to make sports safer for other children.”

She said the foundation has made more progress in reaching athletes in the last year than in the previous 15. The impetus, she said, was the death of another football player, Lamar High School lineman Tyler Davenport, who died from heat-related illness after two months in the hospital in the fall of 2010.

“It kind of forced me to look at what we’re doing and why we weren’t getting it done,” Fincher said. “Kids should not be dying from heat illness.”

In 2010, the foundation started the web-based Hydration Campaign. It’s a self-guided, interactive curriculum that coaches and athletic directors can use to teach athletes and their parents about hydration, exercise and symptoms of heat illness.

All involved must take a quiz to make sure they understand the information. In 2011, the foundation partnered with the Arkansas Activities Association to use the program — either in its online form or a paper version —  for all parent meetings for football.

“A lot of time, parents just look at the coaches and think they’re 100 percent responsible,” Fincher said. “But really, two-thirds of the responsibility has to happen at home. So much happens before and after a child goes to practice or a game.”

Many times, parents have asked Fincher to call their children’s coach or administrator to complain.

“Until parents stand up for what’s right for their child, nothing’s going to change,” she said.

The foundation has an annual budget of roughly $150,000, most of which goes toward its programs. The office includes Fincher and just one paid part-timer, complemented by a strong board and many dedicated volunteers, Fincher said.

While keeping the foundation’s mission front of mind, there’s been an increased focus on fundraising, Fincher said. The Heat Stroke Awareness Luncheon, pairing sponsors with invited coaches, debuted in 2010 as a way to promote Heat Stroke Awareness month, which is August. In August of last year, the foundation sponsored the first-ever “A Cool Summer Night Gala.” The 2012 luncheon is July 26 and the gala is Aug. 18.

The annual Kendrick Fincher Youth Run & 5K Run/Walk, now in its 14th year, will be held May 12 at Pinnacle Hills Promenade in Rogers. The Youth Run is free for children K-8th grades; the 5K Run/Walk is a fundraiser. The run, and now the race, could be considered the foundation’s signature events, drawing a record 900 participants last year.

This time of year, though, Fincher can’t help but wonder what Kendrick’s life would be like as an adult, especially at 30.

“I think I’d be a grandma,” she says with a laugh. “I wonder what kind of girl he would have married. I wonder what kind of career he would have chosen — the basic things.”

A year ago, she published a book about how she came to terms with her heartache. The tome, “Good Night Kendrick, I Love You: A Mother's Journal through Grief,” was drawn from letters she had written Kendrick after he died. Transcribing those letters for the book was like reliving the experience, she said.

To cope, she simply looks for the everyday joy in life. In addition to Kendrick, Fincher has a married daughter, Keegan Ball, and two other children still at home — 14-year-old Rylee Fincher and 12-year-old Brennan Fincher.

“It would be so easy to think about the ‘What ifs’ and “Oh I wish…’ and ‘If only I hadn’t lost a child.’ It would be so easy to think about that. So I really have to focus on finding the joy in everyday life and what I have and not what I don’t have.”