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Daughter's fight against diabetes inspires Kekalainen

by Alison Lukan / Columbus Blue Jackets

Many people think of their birthday as an opportunity to celebrate themselves, but this year, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen turned his 50th birthday into a celebration of helping others inspired by his daughter, Emilia, who is living with Type 1 diabetes.

He organized a party of about 100 friends, and instead of the standard birthday gifts, he asked them to make donations to the Diabetes Research Foundation in Finland.

Kekalainen also set up an auction of hockey jerseys and memorabilia online and at the party. In total, he was able to spearhead a donation of over $36,000 USD to the Foundation.

“I wanted to do something good,” Kekalainen said.

This was Kekalainen’s first year working with the Finnish organization, but not his first helping to raise awareness and research support for the disease his oldest daughter faces.

He and his family have participated for years as “Team Emilia” in the Columbus Juvenile Diabetes Fund (JDRF) One Walk – an event focused raising funds for global research to fight Type 1 diabetes.

According to JDRF, Type 1 diabetes (commonly known as juvenile diabetes) is an autoimmune disease that strikes individuals suddenly when the pancreas stops creating insulin. Insulin is a hormone that allows your body to pull the energy it needs from food.

In the absence of self-producing insulin, people with diabetes must take on a constant process of monitoring their blood sugar levels and balancing insulin appropriately with what your body demands.

Now 11 years old, this is a challenge that Emilia, who was diagnosed at age five, has been able to become responsible for almost completely.

“(Emilia) changes her pump, puts the insulin into the new pumps, and checks her blood sugar independently,” Kekalainen said. “She’s very active, she dances, plays tennis. Those things (in addition to) the heat, to stress, to hormones and puberty can affect blood sugar. It’s a constant process to make sure you know where blood sugar is at and reacting to it with the insulin and eating right and having a healthy lifestyle.”

And while Kekalainen admits that he and wife Tiina still worry about Emilia - they check her insulin every night before they go to bed - he is encouraged by the medical advancements that are coming.

“There are tremendous people doing work every day trying to find a cure. It’s getting closer,” Kekalainen said. “From artificial pancreas to all these pumps that are getting more and more sophisticated. For example, Emilia wears an OmniPod that helps alleviate the need to take several different injections.”

It was this hope for continued advancements and eventually a cure that compelled Kekalainen to put together this year’s fundraiser using memorabilia from his lifetime in the sport of hockey.

“I contacted people that I had association with throughout my years in hockey, whether I drafted a player or worked with a player on the national team,” Kekalainen said. “I also took a couple jerseys from my own collection.”

Kekalainen carried gear for the auction over to Finland himself, including the jerseys of current Jackets Nick Foligno and Brandon Saad from their respective All-Star appearances. Both sweaters were part of the online auction and were quickly sniffed out by two Blue Jackets fans in Columbus.

The Jackets’ jerseys not only ended up as the two highest bids online, but also the highest increase of all of the online merchandise.

“That was great,” Kekalainen said. “I brought (the jerseys) to Finland thinking someone there was going to buy them. To my surprise (Jackets fans) had a contact in Finland who helped purchase them and donate the money to the charity so I had to bring them back. I met the fellows here at the office and gave them the jerseys and shook their hands.”

While this was the Kekalainen’s first year working with the Finnish charity, it’s not the last. He says his family is setting up a non-profit organization within the Finnish Fund.

And there are plans underway for another jersey auction, this time in the U.S., hopefully at a Blue Jackets preseason game leading up to the 2016 JDRF walk in Columbus on September 26.

“I’d like to do a similar thing here before the walk,” Kekalainen said. “Getting jerseys of all of our guys that are in the World Cup and getting those signed and maybe team signed ones as well. I’ll buy the jerseys myself and donate those to the auction. That’s my plan.”

Kekalainen is quick to brush off any questions about making time for such charitable efforts, or giving his own personal mementos to the cause.

“All (of these jerseys) are dear to me,” Kekalainen said. “But for this cause I would give up every jersey that I had to make sure that we help as much as we can to get the cure and someday I’m positive that we will.”

The 2016 Columbus JDRF Walk is September 26 at Ohio Stadium. More information here:

Join Team Emilia here:

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