Never Wavering

If somebody needed CPR would you be able to help them? Or if you needed to, could you use an AED? Do you even know what an AED is?

Three years ago, I didn’t.

But I’ve come a long way since then, when my Aunt Maureen passed away.

Nothing made that more clear than standing in a crowd of New York City students at P.S. 127 in April as my foundation (together with Safe Kids NYC) celebrated its third annual Hopey’s Day.

Hopey. That’s what my family called Aunt Maureen because she was always the one who brought hope to all of us. You can thank my grandma for the nickname.

And this year, as New York City mayor Bill de Blasio officially declared April 22 Hopey’s Day, we saw years of our hard work become reality. I founded Hopey’s Heart Foundation in Aunt Maureen’s memory after she died of multiple organ failure in 2013. The foundation’s goal has been to raise awareness for sudden cardiac arrest and to help place AEDs (automated external defibrillators) in schools, recreation centers and parks. This year, it has been working with two of the city’s public schools to educate kids on issues about which I barely even knew only a few months before I started my foundation: cardiac arrest, and AEDs.

The Hopey’s Day celebration made for a long day, full of clinics and activities with the kids, and as it was winding down I got a call. It was a number I’ve had saved in my phone since I was 15, when I attended my first Team USA basketball camp. It belongs to Ms. Carol Callan, the director of the women’s national team.

I had been expecting Ms. Carol’s call. She told us she’d be calling that week with the finalized roster for Rio Olympics. I hadn’t been able to make it to the past two training camps because I was playing abroad and then in the WNBA Eastern Conference finals with the Liberty, and to be quite honest, I had no idea what she was going to say.

I answered the phone and she gave me the news: I had made the U.S. Olympic basketball team. I will be going to Rio.

To be named one of the 12 women on the U.S. team is an incredible honor. And to have found out that I had made it on Hopey’s Day — a day that means so much to me and my family — is indescribable.

Once I hung up, I immediately thought about my aunt and how proud she would have been of all that’s been accomplished in her name — and also how proud she would have been that I’ll again be playing for my country.

It was my Aunt Maureen who was there for my very first tournament with USA Basketball when we played in the 2010 FIBA World Championships in the Czech Republic. My mom and my dad couldn’t make it so I invited Aunt Maureen. During the NCAA tournaments, when I was playing at the University of Connecticut, she was there, sitting beside my mom, dad and the rest of my family — including Ms. Kathryn Moore, Maya Moore’s mother, who we consider a part of our family — as we played for national championships.

I could always pick my Aunt’s cheer out of the crowd. She was from Kingston, Jamaica, but years of living in New York hadn’t diluted her thick accent. In Jamaica, they don’t have basketball, but they do have netball. And in netball there’s one thing they say to every player: “Do the ziggy.” It basically means to get open, get loose — zigzag. Imagine running the court for UConn or for Team USA, hearing those words echoing inside the arena.

“Tina, do the ziggy!”

And when Aunt Maureen said it, I gave opponents the ziggy.

She hadn’t really traveled to many places, outside of trips to London and Kingston to visit family. So at the FIBA championships we got to see another part of the world together. She was the ultimate substitute Sports Mom: Face paint. Team USA T-shirt. Halftime update texts to my mom. Distinctive cheering.

We became incredibly close on that trip. In addition to being a great fan, she really was the one who instilled my faith in God. Before I’d go to a shoot around, we’d sit in our hotel room. I’d be prepping for my game, while Aunt Maureen read her Bible.

“What are you reading now?” I’d ask. And she’d tell me about different verses.

But it’s her own words that stick with me the most.

“Tina, always put God first,” she’d tell me. “Always believe. Never waver in your faith. When things don’t look good, ask for the strength to endure.”

Aunt Maureen was my mother’s oldest sister, the firstborn of six children. She was the glue in our family. Our rock. Whenever any of us needed something — someone to talk to, someone to help get something done — we all knew we could depend on her.

So when she got sick three years ago, it was our turn to be there for her. I had been playing abroad in Poland, and when I came back for the Christmas holidays, my family, who lived in New York, and I went down to Florida to be with her and visit her in the hospital.

When I left to go back to my Polish team, I knew as I hugged her that it would probably be the last time I would see her.

Less than three months later, Aunt Maureen died of multiple organ failure.

Until her last breath, she had her strength and her faith. Just like she told me, her faith never wavered.

Before she died, I happened to read the story of a young man named Wes Leonard. He died of an enlarged heart during a high school basketball game in 2011. It was a death that might have been prevented if there had been an automated external defibrillator (AED) in the gym. His story really affected me, and I made a contribution to the organization set up in his memory, which works to get AEDs into schools in Michigan.

I never got the chance to speak to my aunt about Wes, or about how much his story moved me. But when I started making plans to create something in her memory, I knew this was the cause I wanted to get behind. So it is in Aunt Maureen’s memory — and in honor of her giving heart — that our foundation, Hopey’s Heart, continues similar work. We’re raising awareness about sudden cardiac arrest, which is the leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming 400,000 lives a year. We’re pushing to place AEDs across the U.S., and within the last year, in other countries, as well.

After working on this issue, I’m still surprised by how little people know about AEDs and how many lives could be saved if AEDs were just on hand and properly oriented. Even in my third year as a pro, when Aunt Maureen died and I read Wes’s story, I still had no idea how to perform CPR or what an AED was.

Let me ask you this: If a person collapsed next to you, would you know what to do? Would you know whether you were in a location that even required an AED? Would you have the confidence to use an AED? And most importantly, if you did, would you even know how to use it?

My foundation’s mission is to make sure that you will. But what the foundation is really about — what inspires our work — is who my aunt was. And who she was was a woman who woke up every morning and asked herself, “How can I be useful today? How can I serve others?”

Asking how you can serve others and then really accomplishing it, are very different.

Something I learned very quickly is that running a foundation is … hard. I didn’t know how hard it would be. I didn’t know about funding or donations — any of it. I just went all in, right away. But after months of work — trying to raise donations, trying to get our name out there — it felt like nothing was coming back.

I looked at my mom and said, “Maybe we should stop. Maybe this isn’t it. Maybe I can serve in a different way.”

But my mom, who had been really hands-on with the foundation, dropped a folder of testimonials in my lap. I sat there and read every single one of them — messages from people I had never met before, thanking us for all the work we were doing.

And then my aunt’s words — just like those cheers from the bleachers — rang in my head.

Always believe. Never waver in your faith. When things don’t look good, ask for the strength to endure.

We kept going.

And now, three years since we launched, we’ve grown enough to open our own office space in New York. We’re working with the AAU to get more AEDs for sports teams; we’re offering CPR training; we’re even bringing on interns.

To date, through our grant program, there have been more than 200 AED recipients across the world.

There’s still a lot of work to do. I looked into where AEDs weren’t required in New York: private schools (like the Catholic schools that I went to growing up), emergency response units, NYPD patrol cars. In partnership with Heart Smart and EMS Safety Services and our “Build Up NYC” program, we’re working on AED placement and CPR certification in schools, emergency response units and recreation centers. They all don’t have AEDs in them. And they all should have AEDs in them.

It’s all about thinking bigger and bolder. Our goals are audacious, but we’re strong, just like my aunt.

My Aunt Maureen never got to see my dream of playing in a New York Liberty uniform at Madison Square Garden come true. I don’t hear her cheers, or catch a glimpse of her face paint, or see her wearing my jersey.

She won’t be there in Rio with her Team USA T-shirt.

But not having her there at games has gotten easier. It gets easier because of the work that I’m doing through Hopey’s Heart Foundation. It gets easier because I have something in her name that lives on.

She lives on.

We’ve come a long way. Never wavering, always believing.