The worst possible thing that could happen to any parent is the loss of a child. It’s a traumatic event that can have a lasting negative impact. Studies show that grief over a death is most stressful when it involves a child. Steve and Brandee Lendosky endured the unexpected loss of their son Derek on August 4, 2013 – just three days before his tenth birthday. Yet, the Lendosky family turned tragedy into “paying it forward” for others through the “Acts of Kindness” campaign.
The campaign spreads the message to “Do it 4 Derek” as we think of others first. Derek’s message is simple — do something for someone just because it feels good — do it just to make them smile.
“Do it 4 Derek” has grown several branches in the past few years besides “Acts of Kindness”. There is a “Do it 4 Derek” website with Acts of Kindness documented on a map and through stories. Derek loved baseball, so the Lendoskys have also celebrated Derek’s Day at the Ballpark (Miller Park) and partnered with Stars and Stripes Honor Flight Milwaukee to send veterans to Washington, DC. They have also worked with former Brewers pitcher Steve Woodard to create an annual baseball camp in Fennimore for kids. This year Steve Woodard will be joined by popular returning coaches Cecil Cooper, Jim Gantner, Pete Ladd, Willie Mueller, and Paul Wagner.
Recently, Steve and Brandee answered my interview questions about Derek, how “Acts of Kindness” got started, the evolution of the baseball camp, and how their family continues to honor Derek.
Please tell us about Derek’s love of baseball and how he became a fan of José Bautista.
Baseball is in our family’s blood. It was a very important part of my (Steve’s) childhood as my father, brother and I were very active in baseball and softball all through our lives. We are diehard Brewers fans, sometimes to the point of it taking over our summers. Derek was born in 2003 and Lucas in 2004. In 2004 Brandee and I decided to purchase a 20-game season ticket pack at Miller Park, despite living 2 hours and 22 minutes from the gates of Miller Park. Our boys grew up at the ballpark, where we averaged 25 games a year. We increased our ticket package to 5 seats in 2007 when our daughter Peyton was born. Most of our pictures of our kids, when they were young, were at the ballpark.
Derek was an amazing child. He was very gifted in math, and kept stats on every baseball player. He would play baseball games using his stuffed animals as players, and then keep the stats for those games. Every morning when he would wake up, he would turn on the MLB Network and check out how people did the night before and then call me at work to tell me how my fantasy team was doing. Believe it or not, Derek started helping me draft my teams when he was 5. At the end of the 2009 season, I was in the championship game, and we were looking for a quick add. We found Jose Bautista on there, remembering him from his days in Pittsburgh, and I think he had hit a homerun against Boston the night before, so Derek suggested we grab him and play him the final week. I think he went on to hit 3 homeruns that week, and we won the championship. Derek now claimed he had a new favorite player. In 2010 when MLB The Show came out, Bautista was the only player he would take in the homerun derby, and amazingly, Jose hit 54 homeruns that year and won the homerun title. Shortly after that he started asking for Jose items, so we bought him the Jose shirsey.
In 2012 he finally got to see Jose play when we went to a Brewers vs Blue Jays game on June 19th (Tyler Thornburg’s debut). We showed up before the gates opened to make sure we were the first ones in the ballpark. Dressed in his Bautista shirsey, we took off to the right field corner where the wall juts out, as that is where our old seats were (Sec 107 Row 9). The Blue Jays were taking BP and Jose was right in front of us. Derek was so excited he just kept waving with his glove. Then a ball came rolling over. Jose grabbed it, and came walking over to Derek and handed him the ball and said hi. It was probably one of his greatest moments ever. He treasured that ball. During that game, he put on a Brewers jersey over his Bautista shirsey, but took off the Brewers attire every time Jose was up. When Jose went yard off of Tyler in that game, Derek was screaming and yelling, much to the disliking of the fans around us, but they understood why. That ball and that shirsey stayed with Derek. We buried him in the shirsey and right next to him was that ball from Jose. The rest of the story with Jose, you can read online. Jose was very kind to us. Someday when his playing days are over, we are going to try to get him here.
It looks like the annual baseball camp started out as a free hitting clinic with Rob Deer in 2014. Can you tell us how that clinic got started and how it evolved into including more players and becoming a full-blown camp and tournament?
Prior to Derek’s death, in 2013, I had signed up to go to Fantasy Camp in 2014. After he passed, Brandee and I decided that it would be best for me to go in his honor. Prior to going to camp, I was contacted by Rick and Amy Ramirez, wonderful people who wrote the daily newspaper for Fantasy Camp. They had asked if they could do a story about Derek and our family, and the now strong Acts of Kindness campaign that was started in his honor. At camp, all of the campers were introduced to our tragedy and the good that was coming from Derek’s memory and spirit. One of the campers there, Mike Keith, was a funeral director and had a situation of loss himself which he shared with me. Being friends with Rob Deer, he approached Rob about doing something to give back as an Act of Kindness to the children of our community. That became the one day free camp in Fennimore where we had over 275 kids attend. After that, we felt that making this camp something bigger, would give a better opportunity to the kids of our community, so we asked some other ex-major league players to help us out. In 2015 I was introduced to now one of my best friend’s, Steve Woodard, and we started to fine tune the camp to make it what it is today. As for the tourney that follows our camp, it has been around for years. The Fennimore Baseball Boosters were kind enough to name the tourney after Derek, as it was the last baseball game he ever played in. They use the proceeds from this tournament to give out scholarships to graduating senior baseball players, in his name. We have a very wonderful community here.
Please tell us about the Acts of Kindness cards and how they work.
The Acts of Kindness cards were started by one of Brandee’s best friends, Brenda Bunn, in hopes to encourage others to continue to pay it forward. It was a simple message letting you know that the Act was in Derek’s name, to pray for our family, and to continue to pass it on and use the card as the message. There are over 1000 documented acts that have been done in his name in all 50 states and 17 countries. We do our best to keep up with all of the different cities in the US where they have taken place and sometimes we will write down what the Act was. That map can be found on our website. But the card is simply a symbol to pass around. You don’t have to do it in his name, but the mere fact that you are doing something nice for someone else, without any need to be recognized for this, makes his spirit shine and his memory live on.
What are some of the most gratifying things of the Do it 4 Derek campaign?
That is kind of a 2 part answer. As a parent, we are truly honored that people CHOOSE to remember our son and continue to honor him and keep his spirit alive with everything they do. That is very humbling to know that so many people still love and miss him. As far as our foundation goes, the most gratifying thing is knowing that we are able to help people out financially every year, and that we are bringing opportunities to the people of our community that they may have never gotten before. The community is truly grateful and the letters and comments we get thanking us makes it worth all the work we do. I am glad that Derek’s tragedy has been turned into a positive movement.
This August will be five years since you lost Derek. Are there any plans in the works to commemorate his birthday? Or would your wish just be to continue to see people pay it forward in Derek’s name?
We do not really do anything different since he left us. Last year was the first time we spent his Angelversary and Birthday away from our families. We took a trip to Maine, off the grid basically, and enjoyed some family time in a place we knew he would love. Derek’s number was 4 and last year was the 4th anniversary of his passing, so we did that for his memory. This year we plan on just being together as a family and continuing to do a bunch of Acts of Kindness, like we do every year, at all of his favorite places. We will probably head back to the M in Platteville, climb it, and laugh like we did the day he counted every stair up and down. But we always spend his Angelversary and his Birthday doing Acts of Kindness in his name.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
We miss our son like crazy and our hearts hurt every day. We cry every night and rely on the strength of each other to make it through every day. Losing Derek has left a hole in our family that can never be filled. But we aren’t alone in our journey. As far as everything else regarding our story, most of the information can be found on our page, of the things we do in his name. We are blessed that so many choose to continue to honor his memory. Although the Acts of Kindness have slowed, which we expected, there are still so many that choose to remember and honor him. That is a humbling experience for a parent. We know that Derek is smiling down on us every day.
Please visit the Do It 4 Derek website for more information!
My sincere thanks to Steve and Brandee Lendosky for such a wonderful interview!