Reds honor local charities' ALS Triple Play Initiative

June 10th, 2024

The Reds’ celebration of MLB’s fourth annual Lou Gehrig Day included a special pregame ceremony and check presentation for the ALS Triple Play Initiative.

This season, the Reds were on the road June 2, date of the league-wide Lou Gehrig Day each year, so they teamed up with local groups to raise awareness and funds for ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) through a variety of pregame and in-game activations during Sunday’s game against the Chicago Cubs.

As a part of the ceremonies, the Reds honored three local charities that together form the ALS Triple Play Initiative: Always Lifting Spirits, Chair Force 1 Foundation and Operation Ramp It Up. The three charities discovered one another through helping some of the same families. While their specific services may differ, they complement one another, and their missions are aligned.

The Jeff Weber Always Lifting Spirits Foundation was founded in 2014 to honor Jeff Weber, a Cincinnati resident who passed away at age 48 after a year-long battle with ALS. The foundation donates power lift chairs for ALS patients. Since the foundation’s inception, Always Lifting Spirits has been responsible for donating 90 chairs to date, which have proven to be a game changer for both the ALS patients and their caregivers.

“My dad was a huge Reds fan, we went to Opening Day every single year,” said Always Lifting Spirits’ Michelle Heekin, one of Weber’s daughters. “Even when he was diagnosed with ALS, we got to fly out to Arizona and throw a first pitch at a spring training game. It means a lot partnering with the Reds because of the special memories myself and my sister have with my dad. For us both to go out on the field and receive that check today was so special. The last time we had been on a field was throwing that first pitch with our dad in Goodyear.”

Always Lifting Spirits’ connection with the Reds was made possible through the Chair Force 1 Foundation and its co-founder, Ben Coffaro, whom Heekin has known since high school. Coffaro lost his dad to ALS in 2021. In addition to the unfathomable physical and mental toll the disease can take on a family dealing with ALS, he also understood the significant financial hardships that come with it.

With Coffaro and his lifelong friend Ben Rolfes wanting to solve that problem for the next family facing ALS, Chair Force 1 was born. Entering its second year of operations, the foundation donates wheelchair accessible vans and mobility equipment to families in Greater Cincinnati fighting ALS and other neurological diseases.

“To have this partnership with the Reds, I’m speechless,” Coffaro said. “I think we’re going to be able to help more and more people and not have to say no to people. No one takes care of their own quite like Cincinnati. That’s what this is about and what the partnership with the Reds allows us to do. We're hoping to attract not only people that can give us support, but also attract people that need our help. And even if we can’t help everyone directly, we can point them in the right direction to other organizations that can.”

When Coffaro’s foundation was assisting Paul Tepe, a local resident diagnosed with ALS in 2022, he found out that Always Lifting Spirits had provided Tepe and his family with an in-home lift chair. Shortly after getting the Tepes set up with a van, Coffaro learned about another organization that installed a ramp for them: Operation Ramp It Up.

Under the guidance of CEO Greg Schneider, Operation Ramp It Up has been helping people with physical disabilities -- including military veterans and ALS patients -- for over a decade by installing wheelchair ramps at their homes. During retirement, Schneider has done anything but sit back and relax. Helping the ALS community has become his number one priority.

Ramps donated via Operation Ramp It Up can be found in all 50 states. Four of the families Schneider and his group provided ramps for over the last year were in attendance for Sunday’s game.

With all three organizations working together, there’s never been a more impactful triple play.

“Individually, we each do some unique things that insurance doesn't cover,” Coffaro said. “But together, we do it all. We serve the same community, we just do it in different ways.”

“I can sum it up in three words. We’re giving people back their freedom, independence and accessibility,” Schneider said.

Prior to the game, Reds pitcher and Cincinnati native presented a check from the Reds to ALS Triple Play. Schneider, Coffaro, Heekin and her sister Ashley Najdovski participated in the ceremony. Afterward, they joined the hundreds of family and friends who purchased tickets through the three organizations and enjoyed the afternoon at the ballpark.

Since 2021, Major League Baseball has recognized Lou Gehrig Day across the league on June 2. The date marks when Gehrig became the Yankees’ starting first baseman, cementing the start of his incredible streak of consecutive games played, and signifies the day he passed from complications of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The focus of Lou Gehrig Day is to remember the legacy of Gehrig and all those lost to the disease that bears his name; raise awareness and funds for research of ALS; and celebrate the groups and individuals who have led the pursuit for cures.

Additional ALS-related ceremonies on June 9 included Mariemont High School student Chloe Telgkamp receiving the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award Scholarship. Chloe’s high school lacrosse coach passed away from ALS, and her sister was recently diagnosed with the disease. The scholarship was created by Reds pitcher , the team’s nominee for MLB’s Lou Gehrig Award for the second consecutive year, to help a member of a local family affected by ALS.

There was a moment of remembrance in honor of the late Adam Wilson, a Cincinnati native and longtime Reds fan. Before passing away in January after a lengthy battle with ALS, Wilson was instrumental in helping MLB establish the league-wide Lou Gehrig Day.

John Barlow from West Chester offered up a ceremonial pitch on behalf of Strike Out ALS, ALS United Ohio and people with ALS. Jim Robb, a retired Cincinnati police officer who is battling ALS, was honored as the Kroger First Responder of the game. Sunday’s News of the Game segment highlighted the inaugural Q4A Cure barbeque picnic that took place on June 1 at Smoke Justis in Covington. The event raised over $40,000 for the ALS Association.