Early life lesson taught Fredonia’s Luke Rivera the importance of giving back.

By Russell Jaslow

“I couldn’t wrap my head around it.”

That’s what Luke Rivera thought when as a 14-year-old kid in summer school, he received a phone call that his mother, at just 44 years old, suffered an ischemic stroke, leaving half her body paralyzed.

“It caught me very, very off guard,” he said. “I didn’t really understand what was going on.”

Luke and his three siblings experienced the family caretaker dynamics flip.

The physical and emotional effects were devastating, not just for Dana Rivera, but for the whole family. It was time for the child, while they were still children, to take care of the parent.

“Each of the kids at the time dealt with it differently,” Dana said. “Luke is a caretaker in his special way. He really stuck by my side when I was in the hospital. That was his way of dealing with the incident.”

“It really brought the maturity out of my family during that hard time,” added Luke. “It taught me to step up to the plate when things get rough.”

What it also taught Luke was to give back. That lesson, combined with his heart, passion, and organizational skills has him pegged as a 2018 Hockey Humanitarian Award finalist.

Dana recovered through hard work and extensive rehab. She then devoted her energies to become a stroke facilitator.

Luke turned his energies to create the Stroke Awareness Night at Fredonia.

Luke’s oldest brother, Jake, played at Potsdam (their youngest brother, Nick, is a sophomore, playing at Minnesota State). While there, Jake gave back to the community. However, he didn’t feel like he did enough. So he gave Luke, a freshman, some sage advice.

“He was getting ready to graduate,” Luke said of his brother. “He said, ‘I want to let you know that we’ve been given an opportunity to do a lot more than just to play a game. I personally really wish I did more throughout the community. My time’s up to really take advantage of the opportunity and be able to help bring awareness to situations.’

“And then it came to me. I know how stroke has affected my life with my mom. And I know a couple of people, my assistant coach’s father had a stroke, Danny Kubear, who is very close to the team, had a stroke. It’s more common than people think, and I don’t see any hockey games that represent stroke awareness, so I would love to do that.”

First, Luke had to convince his coach, Jeff Meredith. There was a big reason for that. Fredonia started the Pink the Rink craze, garnering national attention.

Were they open to another such event?

“I wasn’t trying to outdo him and compete with him or take the spotlight by any means,” Luke said.

Meredith added: “A lot of time, players have all these ideas, but they don’t realize how much work and time goes into something like this. He seemed to understand that.”

“I was like, ‘I’m doing this thing,’” said Rivera. “I went into his office with a folder. Had the whole thing planned out — jerseys, charity, fundraisers, all that stuff.”

Meredith called it “an amazing idea.”

“One thing he was really good at was giving me very regular updates,” said Meredith. “He’s a really motivated and organized person. I’ve been nothing but impressed. He just hit it right out of the park.”

Even though his brother had graduated, Rivera picked the Potsdam game for the event.

“I have so much history with those guys,” Luke said. “I just love to have them be a part of it. I wish Jake could have been a part, too, but he graduated. Potsdam guys are like family to us, so it’s cool to share that with them as well as my team.”

His mother flew in from Pacific Palisades, Calif., to drop the ceremonial puck.

“I was blown away to be asked in the first year of doing this campaign to drop the puck,” she said. “I was such a proud mom to be able to be there in person with my son who means the world to me.”

“I’ve met his whole family,” Meredith said. “They were all brought up with tremendous values and great character, to make a difference. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Then, the family caretaker roles flipped again. Jake tore his Achilles heel during an off-ice workout. He needed surgery to repair the tear, and his junior season would be lost.

“I was able to help him along the tough times in the beginning from the incident itself to the surgical moment to thereafter, rehabbing, day to day disappointment of not being able to play,” Dana said.

“She’s been nothing but a tremendous impact on my recovery,” said Luke. “The weekly text messages when I was down in the dumps over the whole thing. The whole rehab situation, she gave me advice left and right. She knew exactly how it felt to be in that situation when you’re helpless, when you can’t do much. She had the best words of wisdom every time I called her.”

Luke continued working on the second annual Stroke Awareness Night. It, too, went off without a hitch. In the two years, it has raised $20,000 for the Gates Vascular Institute of the Kaleida Health Facility in neaby Buffalo, N.Y.

While getting ready for his senior year — “definitely this time next year, I’ll be playing without a doubt” — the Business Management major also has to put a succession plan into effect.

“We talked about picking a teammate,” noted Meredith. “So he’s had a whole year to look around the locker room and find people who he thought could succeed him. And then we’ll have to go though the process with this person in being able to find the next person. If we can do that and make sure it stays in the right hands, it’s going to continue to be a great event.”

Luke wants this to succeed long after he graduates, saying, “We definitely want to continue this tradition.”

“He’s a great kid,” Meredith said. “He’s got the biggest smile in the world. He’s the kind of person when he talks to people, he makes people feel good. He’s got a passion. He’s a very passionate person. He’s passionate about everything.

“With as hard a worker he is and as organized and detailed as Luke is, he’s just going to be tremendously successful at whatever he touches. We all here at Fredonia, and especially athletics, are just so proud of him, what he has accomplished and the ground work he has laid here.”