The defenseman, one of five finalists for the 2016 Hockey Humanitarian Award, presented by BNY Mellon Wealth Management, gained a waiver from the NCAA to work with the Love Your Melon organization benefiting children with cancer.
Brown captain Alli Rolandelli said the secret to good leadership is caring for people, listening to them and communicating with others.
“I think by loving others you can really gain their respect and make a difference,” said Rolandelli, one of five finalists for the 2016 Hockey Humanitarian Award, presented by BNY Mellon Wealth Management.
She was taught by her parents at a young age to help others. She didn’t know it at the time but monthly volunteering at the local food shelter was the start of a fulfilling life as a goodwill giver.
“It was more competing with my sisters to see who could bag the most food,” she laughed.
My parents showed me the importance and the meaning that we all have times in our days to give back to the community.
Alli’s mother, Cheri, got her family involved with the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life in 2008, not knowing that she would be stricken with brain cancer a year later. Cheri was told she had eight months to live but she would not accept the prognosis. “Nope, we are not going to believe that. That’s not going to happen,” she said that day.
Cheri Rolandelli underwent radiation treatments, spinal surgery and four brain surgeries. Headed into one dangerous procedure, Cheri was told by her neurosurgeon that she probably would lose her vision and movement of her hands and legs. When she woke up following surgery, Cheri moved her toes and fingers, turned to Alli and said, “I can see you.”
“That was just a moment I will always remember,” Alli said. “That spoke to how strong she was and what a miracle and beautiful person she was.”
Cheri Rolandelli passed away on Oct. 7, 2014. Alli took some time off from school to gather herself.
“After my mom passed away I wanted to do more,” Alli said. “I wanted to really make a difference in this fight against cancer.”
One day, Rolandelli happened to see a Love Your Melon hat — since 2012 the apparel outlet based in Rolandelli’s home state of Minnesota has established a network of college students across the nation to sell and donate baseball caps and soft winter caps to child cancer patients across America. She looked up the organization online and liked what it was all about.
“I noticed it was such an awesome program and exactly what I was looking for,” said Rolandelli, who set out to establish a student crew at Brown.
The only problem is the NCAA had regulations prohibiting student-athletes from working directly with an apparel company. Refusing to take no for an answer, Rolandelli made her case known to new Brown coach Bob Kenneally and then-school compliance officer Eric Schneider.
“I kept emailing them a bunch of times,” she said. “I didn’t want to let this go.”
Together, they made an appeal to the NCAA, which changed its legislation within a few months to allow for the charitable work.
“It’s an amazing thing that Alli did,” Kenneally said, “and she didn’t do it for herself, she did it for those children who are dealing with this horrible disease. To the NCAA’s credit and to Alli’s credit, the important factor here was making the lives of children just a little bit better. … The fact the NCAA was able to change this legislation was significant.”
“I remember the exact moment it was,” Rolandelli said. “I got a call from Eric and Coach Kenneally saying the waiver went through and everything was going to work out. I remember having a moment of silence, attributing it to my mom and everyone else who has been affected by this disease. It was very encouraging and inspiring, and I was excited to see where we could take Love your Melon at Brown.”
Rolandelli and the rest of the Brown Love Your Melon crew have sold hats and visited Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, R.I., on several occasions, dressing up as superheroes — Rolandelli dresses up as Mrs. Incredible.
“We get to hang out with them and just try to distract them from their disease, if even for a while,” she said.
It’s tough on Rolandelli, who is reminded of her mother’s battle with cancer with every visit to the children’s ward. But she also draws strength from her mother’s passion for working with kids.
“It would be selfish of me to say I am sad when I am going there,” Rolandelli said with a deep sigh. “It’s hard because it is nothing compared to what these kids are going through. And so when I go there I just make sure that I and my crew are very strong and we know what these kids are going through is more than anything we could imagine, so we have to be strong for them and help them find some more passion and fun in their day.
“When I go there and give back to these kids, I feel her looking down at me with pride and I guess knowing that what I am doing is making a difference,” she added.
And what superhero ability does Rolandelli, aka Mrs. Incredible, bring?
“To bring smiles to the faces of kids who deserve them most,” said Rolandelli, who coincidentally is planning to become a dentist following her May graduation from Brown.
The community efforts of Rolandelli reach outside of the university. She has spent time working with the Rhode Island Special Hockey program, helping the developmentally challenged to learn to skate and play hockey.
Since her freshman year at Brown, Rolandelli has worked with first-graders at Vartan Gregorian Elementary School in Providence, helping youngsters with their reading and writing skills. Parents have responded with glowing emails, thanking her for her efforts.
“As soon as she walks in, the 20 students smile and start chanting her name,” Kenneally said. “It’s sort of cliché when you say people brighten a room up. Well, Alli certainly does that. The classroom we adopted comes to multiple home games for Alli and other teammates, specifically chanting for Alli and giving her high-fives and coming into the locker room afterward.
“There are some people when they walk into a room everybody sort of gravitates to,” he added. “Alli has it. … She does the same in everything she does, whether it’s a 6 a.m. practice or late-night video session for a pregame, if it’s a team dinner or if we are doing skating at the end of practice. She is always cheering people on, and she always does it with a smile. She’s inspirational. I have never seen a student-athlete at Brown in my 29 years here so respected by his or her teammates.”
Rolandelli grew up playing backyard hockey on a makeshift rink her father, Bill, built at their home in Minnetonka, Minn. Older sisters, Audrey and Becca, and older brothers, Cyrus and Tim, all played hockey so Alli knew she was born into the game.
“I think when I get on the rink I just feel the wind in my face and having my teammates by my side, that’s something that I will forever live for,” Rolandelli said.
Rolandelli fulfilled her dream of playing Division I hockey by going to Brown. Hardly an imposing figure at 5-foot-3, Rolandelli was a classic defensive defenseman who did not have the hardest shot and just worked harder than most skaters, her means of providing leadership as a captain. She scored her lone collegiate goal on Jan. 18, 2014, against Clarkson, with her mom listening online at home.
“My mom called me crying,” Alli said. “She left me a voicemail of how proud she was of me. She recorded the announcer saying ‘Alli Rolandelli scored.’ It’s something I will always remember.”
Nine months later, her mom was gone, but not in spirit.
“My mom had a very strong faith in God, and she always believed that you have to be bold and you can’t fear anything,” Alli said. “I think that is something that I have carried on and I try to embody every day. I don’t think in my 22 years of life I ever heard my mom complain. She took things as they came and just had the best attitude about it. I think when I hear people say I remind them of my mom, it’s something that I think I will cherish forever. That is something I am most proud of, knowing there’s a little piece of her that is going to be in me. It’s very powerful.”