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Gonzalez, Donald share goal of aiding with recovery

Skipper's close friend heads foundation for healing from brain, spinal injuries
MLB.com

ATLANTA -- Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez recently went to a Lassiter High School football game knowing the home crowd would likely not be in a celebratory mood. After mourning this past summer's sudden death of Phillip Lutzenkirchen, one of its most beloved alums, the school endured a winless campaign on the gridiron.

But Gonzalez's experience on this Halloween evening actually proved to be quite gratifying when Chris Heitzman walked over to greet him.

ATLANTA -- Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez recently went to a Lassiter High School football game knowing the home crowd would likely not be in a celebratory mood. After mourning this past summer's sudden death of Phillip Lutzenkirchen, one of its most beloved alums, the school endured a winless campaign on the gridiron.

But Gonzalez's experience on this Halloween evening actually proved to be quite gratifying when Chris Heitzman walked over to greet him.

Two years earlier, Heitzman was involved in a car accident that occurred in front of Gonzalez's suburban Atlanta neighborhood. He suffered permanent brain damage and physical injuries that had prevented him from walking as recently as this past January, when the Braves skipper had last seen the young man.

"He's going to continue to deal with some brain injuries, but it is just so great to see him walking," Gonzalez said. "Words can't describe how good something like that makes you feel."

Heitzman's progress is an example of what Gonzalez's friend Cindy Donald aspires to help others realize with her Dreams of Recovery Foundation, which is aimed toward raising funds for individuals who have suffered a brain or spinal cord injury.

Donald is simply attempting to help others who share in the difficulties she has experienced since she was left paralyzed after her father accidently drove over top of her while she was sunbathing in the driveway as a teenager. Gonzalez was immediately drawn to this story and has since actively aided the Foundation with its fundraising attempts.

Over the past seven years, Gonzalez, Bobby Cox, Roger McDowell and Royals manager Ned Yost have all taken part in Donald's charity events, which most recently included a Nov. 10 golf tournament in suburban Atlanta.

"A lot of people have come and asked me to put my name on different events and charitable endeavors," Gonzalez said. "This is the only one I lend my name to because I just want to help her. She's an East Cobb resident, and it just hits you in the heart."

Two years ago, Donald set up a Walks for Recovery program that allows individuals to pledge a monetary amount for every walk drawn by the Braves during a season. She is hoping to add a corporate sponsor to aid with this program and have a presence on her website dreamsofrecovery.org.

When the Braves were in New York earlier this year, Gonzalez met with Major League Baseball officials about the possibility of making Walks for Recovery a league-wide promotion.

"To have Fredi involved has meant the world not only to me, but to everyone that I am trying to help," Donald said. "He's gone above and beyond. He never asks for recognition or anything. He's just a really, really great person."

Along with possessing the ultimate hope to those afflicted with spine and brain injuries to improve their functionality, Donald uses the funds she raises to buy accessories, such as exercise mechanisms designed to help these individuals by increasing blood flow, enhancing bone density and improving muscle mass.

Donald was reminded of the importance of these accessories when the cushion for her wheelchair went flat just before she had to make a five-hour drive home. As a result, she developed a pressure (bed) sore that forced her to miss this year's charity golf tournament and remain confined to her bed for more than a week.

"You see people in wheelchairs, and you think that they are handicapped and that we can't do a lot for ourselves," Donald said. "But my foundation helps prevent these secondary complications. Once you get a bed sore, you really find out what being handicapped is. You're really bedridden. I can move myself around and play with my phone when I'm in my chair. I can't do that when I'm in my bed. So, preventing these secondary complications is huge."

Donald's satisfaction comes via phone calls like the one she recently delivered to a Massachusetts man to inform him that she was presenting him with a grant that he could use to purchase an exercise device. The man was overjoyed by the revelation and surprised to learn that he was speaking directly to the woman who has made it her mission to help improve the lives of others who truly understand her daily struggles.

"Just to hear him say, 'you have made my whole day and my whole year,' and know how appreciative they are, it makes it all worthwhile," Donald said. "This is the reason we do what we do. It makes you not want to stop."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Atlanta Braves