SLAMT1D is All In

10/10/16
WRITTEN BY: Alexi Melvin
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slam-t1d-5On April 15, 2005 Jeff Kolok and his wife, Natalie, found out their youngest daughter, Johanna, (or “JoJo” as they lovingly call her) had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. That was the day that “kinda rocked our lives,” Jeff remembers.

Jeff and Natalie reacted by getting on the phone with the health department of Vermont, trying to get as much information as possible about the disease while Johanna lay in the hospital.

The parents pushed through the initial shock, although not easily.

“As a dad, bad (things) aren’t supposed to happen on our watch,” Jeff said, “so when it does, it hits us hard.”

In the following two years, Jeff and Natalie poured themselves into the fight, taking advantage of what charitable organizations for T1D, such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), had to offer. At the time, this primarily consisted of the walks and outreach/advocacy.

In two short years the guilt that Jeff felt had been replaced by motivation. Despite active participation in the JDRF, Jeff and Natalie felt like they could and should be doing more. A call to the Vermont Department for Children and Families would irrevocably change their lives.

Jeff called and introduced himself. After expressing his intention to help in any way that he could, the woman replied, “This is a miracle,” assuming that the couple was looking to adopt a Type 1 diabetic child. Jeff and Natalie were only seeking to help another set of parents of a T1D child that might need a Saturday off. But after hearing the story of Nicholas, a young boy who with an A1C of upwards of 12, needed help, Jeff knew his family was about to grow.

“I knew my life was going to change more radically than it did the day Johanna was diagnosed,” Jeff said. “In June of 2007, we took Nick in, and he became part of the family right away.” The adoption was finalized on September 8, 2008.

A little more than two years after that day that “rocked” their lives, their family of four was now five.

Jeff and Natalie were just getting started; in 2008 they realized the dearth of resources for the parents of children diagnosed with Type 1, so they began Parenting Diabetic Kids.com.

“The site became a great outlet for Natalie and became a great opportunity to meet other moms and other families,” he remarked.  The site currently has over twenty-thousand members. Having addressed outreach with the site, Jeff and Natalie turned their attention to broadening the conversation about Type 1, in a way that other platforms and events simply could not.

“So we needed to rename the walk team, because it was no longer ‘Jo-Jo’s Gang.’ On a family vacation we were throwing around names and came up with ‘Slam Diabetes.’ We even played around with logos.”

After connecting with future Hall-of-Famer Ray Allen (whose son, Walker, has T1D), and attending his golf tournament, the logo became a hit. In 2011 Jeff was invited to the NBA All-Star game, where he continued his support for Ray Allen’s 3 for 3 charity. At the event, he also connected with the likes of Kevin Hart, L.L. Cool J and Marlon Wayans.

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“A lot of the discussion was like, ‘Yeah my Pops had diabetes [or] my Grandmother had diabetes.’ I started to feel like there was a disconnect,” Jeff said. What was most notable was the conflation of Type 1 and Type 2. Many of the people that he spoke with did not recognize the difference.

Jeff noticed a chilling effect with regard to a Type 1 diagnosis. Family and friends would rally to be supportive, donate money, and rush towards a cure, but it was short-lived. The initial group of supporters and donations dwindled over a period of time. Jeff wanted to know why. He knew some of it was due to the monotony of the walks and other standard fundraising efforts.

Amidst his brainstorming, Jeff participated in a Wiffle Ball tournament and SLAMT1D was born. Although wiffle ball is already a sport that almost everyone has some nostalgic connection to, Jeff wanted to kick that excitement up a notch, giving it the feel of a Major League Baseball game (i.e.: play-by-play announcing and in-game music), all within a 45-minute period. Prioritizing fun over all other aspects of the process, essentially adding the fun into Fundraising. Even more outside-the-box is the inclusive nature of the tournaments. They are not exclusive to people who have Type 1.

Almost immediately, Jeff had the cooperation of Major League Baseball, and what began as a few old-timers or local New England players exploded into a huge fundraising operation. Most importantly it has never lost sight of its goal, to increase awareness and the quality of life for those who have Type 1, never losing sight of the “fun” in fundraising, and never resting on the laurels of what Jeff has accomplished.

Joe Maddon was impressed, not only by the scope and fun of the event, but also the education that it provided. Maddon enlisted Jeff to help him with his own charity, aiming for a tournament in Mesa, AZ during Cactus League in early 2018, which will provide outreach for the immigrant community in Hazleton, while simultaneously educating people about T1D, specifically providing outreach to those Spanish speaking members. In addition, they will raise money to help fund a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) lab at the local community center.

The SlamT1D tournaments have grown exponentially, featuring 13 MLB players in the first year, 26 in the second and even more are expected this year. Among its early supporters/participants is Oakland Athletics outfielder (and fellow T1D), Sam Fuld.

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This year, Major League Baseball will be live broadcasting this year’s tournament on December 10, 2016.

Jeff’s most recent endeavors to help kids with T1D include two programs, one called “Life After High School,” which gives them the opportunity to attend summer camp. He was able to send 29 local kids to camp in 2015, and 33 in 2016, the majority of which have never had the means to attend camp before. The second involves a partnership with Camp Ta-kum-ta, a camp aimed towards those suffering from pediatric cancer.

He also assisted with Sam Fuld’s camp at USF in enrolling more children in their facilities. Never one to be satisfied with the status quo, he nearly doubled the capacity. It was Jeff’s out-of-the-box thinking that focused on the 40% of people who were on Medicaid, making camp accessible to them, as well as outreach to a population of Spanish speakers, which is around 30%.

There doesn’t seem to be an end to the outreach that Jeff’s multiple charities can provide. They continue to grow, and he expects participation from all 30 MLB teams in the near future. Jeff added that the tournament may need to be renamed “The biggest wiffle ball tournament in the world!”

Two short years after discovering his youngest daughter had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, he and his wife were already asking how they could help others. Since that day, over eleven years ago, Jeff has never stopped trying to educate and elevate the quality of life for those afflicted with the disease.

“I want to make sure that I have left it all on the table – that I’ve left it all on the field,” Jeff said, “because I want to see my daughter and my son live life in full, with or without a cure. We are still, (best case scenario), 15 years away from a cure. This disease taxes and fatigues the very best of us – those of us with the resources. I can’t imagine to what it does to those without that. And I’m all in.”

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Read Alexi Melvin’s interview with With Major League Baseball player Sam Fuld.



Alexi Melvin

Alexi Melvin is a freelance journalist, fiction writer and screenwriter based in both NYC and the Bay Area. She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2003, and has been passionate about raising awareness ever since. Her other passions include film, literature, animals and spiritual healing. Instagram: @alexi_rm.