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On a sunny summer morning a clutch of boys dashed, darted and dribbled up and down the driveway of Brett Hartley's brick house in Riverside, Connecticut. There were about 30 in all, including Brett, 10, and his brother Cole, 8, playing three-on-three in a round-robin competition. Their mom, Lisa, with baby sister Lacey in her lap, sat on a low stone wall with a small crowd of friends and parents, rooting and cheering wildly at every layup or swish shot, while dad Kyle doubled as referee and scorekeeper. Finally, one trio clinched the championship, and as the boys descended on the snack table, Brett's 6-year-old brother, Spencer, led the youngest players in a pint-size contest to see who could make the most baskets.
Each kid gave his all, but it was Brett who played his heart out. He had organized the 2007 event to help buy a therapy dog for a friend with autism, Jack Rosenblum. "At first I was disappointed my team didn't win, but then I remembered that wasn't the goal," he says. When he and Lisa counted up the donations—a suggested $10 entry fee for each kid, plus additional donations from the adults—they realized they had netted an impressive $1,800. "It was a magical day," says Lisa about what came to be known as the Harts4Jack Hoops Tourney. "Jack was the angel who inspired us."
Brett and Jack have known each other since they were born, and they bonded in day care. Their parents stayed in touch after the Rosenblums moved to Maine and Jack was diagnosed with autism at nearly age 3. Despite years of treatment, he was isolated, easily agitated and barely spoke. An assistance animal would help, but the $5,000 price tag was too much for his parents, Paul and Cameron, after all the thousands of dollars they had already spent on therapy.
Lisa told Brett, who soon came up with a game plan. "The neighborhood kids always had a blast playing pickup basketball," he says. "Organizing a charity tournament was a no-brainer." Brett and Cole launched a full-court press, persuading local stores to provide everything from bagels to trophies to sports gear gift certificates. The boys made flyers and Brett designed a Harts4Jack logo that an uncle, who runs a clothing business, printed up on T-shirts he donated to the cause. "It took us forever," says Cole. "But it didn't feel like work because we were having so much fun."
Lisa and Kyle chipped in too, hosting a cocktail party for friends and neighbors that raised more than enough cash for Jack's canine companion. When Cameron learned the news, "it was all I could do not to bawl," she says. Holding back tears was even more difficult when Poppy, a black Labrador, first bounded into Jack's arms—and when the Rosenblums visited a few months later and Jack fell upon Brett with heartfelt hugs. "To see the bond between Jack and Poppy, and know that we helped bring them together, was incredible," Brett says. "It made me want to do even more."
Soon enough there was another reason to play ball—a friend of Jack's also needed a therapy dog. The second tournament drew crowds that spilled over into a neighbor's driveway, and turnout has grown so much that the annual event is now held at a local civic center gym. The Hartleys set up a special bank account so that donors could make checks out directly to Harts4Jack's cause, which has raised $30,000 in the last seven years. The money has helped a variety of programs, including surfing camps for autistic children and ski training for the Special Olympics as well as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, in honor of his grandmother who recently overcame leukemia.
This year's games will benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and Brett, along with Cole and Spencer (now 16, 14 and 12, respectively) have already kicked into high gear, assigning teams—there will be more than 150 competitors—arranging food and drink deliveries, renting microphones and sound equipment. The goal is to raise $10,000, and even Lacey, now 9, is doing her part by selling lemonade and holding bake sales with friends. It's reassuring to Brett, who worries about how much time he can devote to Harts4Jack after he leaves for college, to see his siblings pick up the ball and run with it. "We can make a big difference in the lives of so many people, and we have a great time doing it," he says. In other words, it's a win-win.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Family Circle magazine.