ST. LOUIS — St. Louis Blues defenseman Colton Parayko was already one of Hunter Hildebrand’s favorite players.
It is now placed at the top of the list.
The Quincy High School junior sports a No. 55 signed jersey, puck and stick and unique memorabilia from Thursday night’s Blues game thanks to Parayko’s Project 55 Game Day experience.
“It was a lot of fun,” Hunter said. “I feel so blessed to have had this experience.”
Hunter, his parents Karla and Chad and his sister Madalyn sat in the penalty area to watch the Blues warm up for the game and enjoyed all-inclusive VIP seating. Hunter mounted the Zamboni after the first period and, following the Blues’ victory, met Parayko.
“It was unreal,” Hunter said.
Her favorite part of the night was “all of it,” Hunter said, but what stood out the most was being on the ice on the Zamboni – “you could see it all everywhere,” Hunter said – and meet Parayko.
For Karla, the best part was seeing Hunter so happy.
“It was just pure joy on his face all night,” she said. “It was crazy, beyond crazy.”
The night left lasting memories, Karla said, but most important was the sense of hope the experience gave Hunter, who continues to recover from major cardiothoracic surgery in December.
Parayko’s Project 55 Foundation strives to provide financial and emotional relief to hospitalized children and their families by creating meaningful opportunities for children in their hospital rooms and outside hospital doors.
Hunter has battled health issues his entire life, and when pectus deformities caused part of his chest to sink in and another part to protrude, constricting his lungs and putting pressure on his heart, doctors said that he needed a procedure similar to open-heart surgery to reconstruct his chest wall to prevent more damage.
Hunter was hospitalized and still groggy after surgery when he found out he had been selected for the experience – and the chance to attend his first-ever Blues game in person.
“I don’t know if you remember saying it, but you said ‘that’s great. It gives me something to look forward to, to get better at,'” Karla said. , just the nicest man.”
Working on a six-month recovery period, Hunter wears a brace to protect his chest and still has some restrictions, but says he’s doing pretty well.
“With everything he’s been through, how much pain, how scared he was of surgery, for him to have a reason to smile and be excited about something, I can never thank them for giving him some joy,” Karla mentioned.
“It’s not even just the Blues. We were unable to reimburse Ronald McDonald House. In the 16 years since Hunter was born, I can’t even tell you how long we’ve spent at the Ronald McDonald House. We were there the first four months of his life – he spent the first four months of his life in the NICU at Children’s Hospital. We often stay there and they gave it this opportunity.
Karla initially expected a low-key experience during the game.
Then “everything started to happen. It was kind of crazy,” she said. “Everyone was so amazing.”
Parayko and his foundation are partnering with Ronald McDonald House of St. Louis, which nominated Hunter for the experiment.
“We are so excited about all the excitement around Hunter and his family,” said House Development Assistant Greta Thompson. “We knew Hunter was a very passionate Blues fan.”
Karla describes Hunter, who hopes to become a music teacher, as “a percussionist by day” as part of the QHS Drum Line and “a sports fanatic by night”.
Thompson said the special opportunities with the Blues and other organizations meant a lot to the families staying at home and their children.
“It’s really important not just for patients but also for families to have experiences outside of the hospital, especially when they’re in high-stress situations,” she said. “Being able to have happy times outside of those stressful times is really good for the whole family.”