Inspired by his mom’s recovery from a stroke, Fredonia’s Luke Rivera uses his platform to raise money

By Matthew Semisch

Organizing an annual fundraising event over the last three years has been right up Fredonia senior and business management major Luke Rivera’s alley. Honoring his mother keeps him driven.

Fredonia’s Stroke Awareness Game event has grown in profile each year, with almost $30,000 being raised for the Gates Vascular Institute of the Kaleida Health Facility in Buffalo, New York. The event’s success has helped Rivera become a Hockey Humanitarian Award finalist for the second consecutive season.

Rivera’s mother, Dana, suffered an ischemic stroke in the summer of 2009. Following surgeries and rehabilitation, Dana Rivera now advocates for stroke patients through speaking engagements.

Across the country, Luke Rivera is aiding the cause. He was encouraged by his older brother Jake, a former player at Potsdam, to make the most of the platform he has been given in college hockey. What a place to do it: Fredonia recently held its 12th annual Pink the Rink game with proceeds going to the American Cancer Society, and Luke took it on himself to help the Blue Devils give to another worthy cause.

“It all began at the end of his freshman year,” Fredonia coach Jeff Meredith said. “Luke came into the office and sat down and said, ‘You know, I know we have Pink the Rink, but I’d like to do a Stroke Awareness Game,’ and then he went to explain to me about how it was a cause that was near and dear to him because his mom had suffered a stroke when he was younger.

“I talked to him about it and I said, ‘Well, jeez, it’s a great idea but if you want to undertake something like this, I’ll work with you and advise you, but you’re going to have to do the heavy lifting. You’re going to have to do the work.’ And he says, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ We would meet regularly after that and every time we met, he had a full agenda and we’d start right at the top and go right on through all those agenda items.”

Rivera wasted no time after getting the green light. He did extensive research on identifying a charity, and by the time the Pacific Palisades, California, native returned to Fredonia for the start of his sophomore year, he was ready to put his idea into practice.

“When I approached him with it in the first week of school, I was dialed in,” Rivera said. “I had all my folders, all my paperwork, had a charity picked out and pretty much made it so that he couldn’t say no.”

Meredith said he and Rivera would discuss the event every couple of weeks at the start of a given season, and when the event gets closer, meetings could become weekly. Wheels would be set into motion each spring for the following season’s Stroke Awareness Game, with a date being identified and special jerseys being ordered.

New wrinkles were added each season. Over the past two years, Rivera and his teammates have made visits as a team to the Chautauqua Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in nearby Dunkirk, New York, to meet and speak with stroke survivors. For last season’s event, Rivera got an assist from Adam Erne, a friend who plays for the Tampa Bay Lightning who donated signed memorabilia.

“The first year, it was just so new to me so we wore special jerseys and I encouraged a red out because the color of stroke awareness is red,” Rivera said. “So everyone in the stands was wearing red, so that happened but it was a basic awareness game.

“The next year, I knew I wanted to make it even bigger, and that’s when we started going to the rehab center and I got more athletes involved and cheerleaders were painting kids’ faces at the games. And there were gift bags and we had sponsors for giving away gifts for raffle tickets, and I put in my own money to buy sound-makers for the crowd. And the next year, it got bigger.

“Every year, I wanted it to be different but better, and it did and we raised more and more money and created more and more awareness.”

This season’s event was held Nov. 9 when Fredonia defeated Bryn Athyn 5-1. Rivera, the Blue Devils’ leading scorer this season with 11 goals, set up the tying goal in a game where Fredonia scored five unanswered.

The Blue Devils were off the following day, and Rivera set up special offers at a local restaurant for players’ family members and other people with tickets from the game.

Rivera also credits Arleen Bachner, his grandmother and Dana Rivera’s mother, for her assistance.

“When this was all happening, I did my best to advertise it and just get the word out as much as possible with GoFundMe, Facebook, Instagram or anything that could help the cause and asking for donations because we’re trying to raise a lot of money for research,” Rivera said. “(Bachner) said, ‘Hey, send me a statement of what you’re asking for with the cause and a little backstory and all that stuff,’ so I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’

“She said, ‘I’m going to send it around to a lot of my friends and family for you,’ and some people just don’t have the social networking access that others do, so she sent my statement to everybody and I got replies and stuff in the mail, and that was a big hit. She couldn’t come to the last two event games but she was there for the very first one, which was incredible. It definitely means a lot to her, just as much as it means to my mom.”

Rivera, who recently became engaged, is still making plans for life after he graduates in May. Fredonia’s Stroke Awareness Game event will continue with help from teammates — next season’s event is scheduled for Dec. 7 — but Rivera will be available to assist.

“Even when I’m not here, I still want to be a part of the game that they’re putting on here,” Rivera said. “Whether they need help doing something or they need contacts, I want to be there for them and I want to see the game keep going.

“It’s nice to see how it’s evolved, and with everything they need, I want to be there for them and I’m not going to be a ghost to them by any means. And my mom does so much of her own things with support groups and working with hospitals and speaking at events and stuff like that, and I’ve thought about going by her side and helping her platform go higher.”

That Rivera will continue to promote a cause so close to him comes as no surprise to his coach at Fredonia.

“You want people to remember him for the impact he had on our community,” Meredith said. “Anybody can go to a site and see what you did goals and assist-wise, but you just spent four years here and what did you leave our community with? How did you leave our community and our campus better than when you arrived? And if you look at a person like Luke, he’s checked all the boxes in that area.

“He’ll return as an alumnus, and with his ties in the community and with the Kaleida Center in Buffalo and the administrators here on campus and obviously the hockey program, he’s made such a big impact in those areas that we just look at it as such a great success story.”