A year ago, DJ Knight, a 7-year-old boy from Fort Meade, sat in a hospital bed, crying from the pain of his newly diagnosed acute lymphoblastic leukemia. His mother, Bridgett, said she and her husband, Dustin, were "utter messes."
It was hard for the three to envision the next year that included weekly chemotherapy treatments, spinal taps and extended emergency room stays for fevers.
But at the Orioles game Saturday, a year after DJ returned home from the hospital for the first time, the Knights will put the grief and hassle aside. Casey Cares Foundation and UMPS CARE Charities have partnered to surprise DJ and celebrate his milestone on the field at Camden Yards.
"It makes us so happy to see how he's improved," Bridgett said of DJ's treatment entering the "maintenance phase," which began a few months ago and continues until 2019. "It's just hard to think about that little boy last year in the hospital bed and just being in tears from being in pain, and this year he's running around."
While he's excited — especially to spend the evening with his grandpa, Roger Perdue, who's visiting from Michigan while battling kidney cancer — DJ doesn't know about the pregame festivities the charities have planned.
Casey Cares, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that offers activities and treats for ill children and their families, and UMPS Care, an organization founded by major league umpires to provide monetary, in-kind and emotional support for children in need, have partnered in cities across the United States to give families VIP treatment at games.
The umpires take the kids on the field for batting practice, and often bring them into their clubhouse, snapping pictures and providing them with baseballs, sunflower seeds and bubble gum. Kids also interact with the mascot and sometimes players.
"They're always surprises to the kids," said Casey Baynes, founder and executive director of Casey Cares. "The kids just think they're going to a baseball game, and they're over the moon."
"To be able to see them smile," said Adrian Johnson, a major league umpire on the UMPS CARE board. "That's what we're about and bring happiness to their lives for a quick moment."
The Knights tried to go to an Orioles game through Casey Cares last year, but it was rained out. They went to a preseason Ravens game instead.
This time, they're eager to see DJ's happiness, a stark contrast from their outlook a year earlier.
"It's cool that there's foundations … that are able to do things like this," Dustin said. "Kids, with whether it be cancer or any kind of debilitating disease, can enjoy an afternoon and kind of take their minds off things."