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Preds Make Impact in Lives of Foster Children from Tennessee Kids Belong

Pekka Rinne, Austin Watson and Predators Teammates Take Time to Bring Compassion, Hope to Those In Need

by Brooks Bratten @brooksbratten / Senior Communications & Content Coordinator

Like most boys their age, the two teens who arrived at Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday have a passion for sports.

Like most boys their age, they aspire to be professional athletes, hoping to reach heights the likes of which they've never seen.

Like most boys their age, they just want to be noticed, to be appreciated, to be loved.

Those athletic dreams won't be fulfilled easily, but no one should ever have to long for the latter. More often than not, they do.

The two boys are part of Tennessee Kids Belong, waiting for forever families while in foster care. They participate in one of the organization's signature programs, the I Belong Project, as a way to give them a face and a voice to help find that family.

On Wednesday of last week, and in conjunction with the Nashville Predators Foundation presented by SmileDirectClub, they not only came to the arena to film a biographical video that will be distributed through churches and businesses in an effort to find a home, they got an immeasurable boost of confidence as well.

The boys met with members of the Predators before and after practice, getting a tour of the locker room, enjoying lunch and speaking with some male role models, something that isn't always present in their situations.

Roman Josi, Pekka Rinne, Austin Watson, Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino, Matt Duchene, Colton Sissons and Dan Hamhuis were just a few who took extra time out of their day to meet and connect with the young men, speaking about sports, family and life.

And it made a difference.

"These kids have been through significant trauma," Tennessee Kids Belong Executive Director Kristin Allender said. "They often feel really alone and isolated and unseen. A lot of the work we do is to help give a voice to kids in foster care, so for them to leave and feel like they were just VIPs today is amazing. They were seen, they were cared for, they have this really special experience and I hope their confidence goes up. I hope there's some hope that maybe wasn't there when they came in today."

One of the boys in attendance showed up for the day already sporting a Preds goalie mask. Pekka Rinne is his favorite player, and after getting geared up with a $300 shopping spree in the Predators Team Store, the boy received a puck from his hero during practice.

Afterward, Rinne took the time to sit and have lunch with the boy - a small gesture, but a big impact in the young man's life.

"It was a great experience for me too," Rinne said. "It's hard to put yourself in their shoes. What they've gone through and how they were brought up and how they've been growing up, it's obviously not their fault. It was just a great opportunity for me to talk to them, and they're great kids, so it was super fun."

Watson later posted a photo on his Instagram page sitting on the Preds bench with the boy, a powerful moment that left a meaningful impression on the professional athlete just as much as it did the attendee.

"Just showing these young men attention and letting them know that you take an interest in what they're doing and that you care about them, it's really important," Watson said. It goes a long way. You see them open up and gain confidence, and you just hope that it's something they can use as a checkpoint or benchmark and just build from there. And as far as me doing it, I get as much out of it as they do. To really be able to spend some time with some kids that haven't had the greatest circumstances and see the appreciation on their face and just see kind of just how much they come to life in the short period of time, that's why we do this stuff.

"To have the privilege to be able to touch somebody else's life, to make a kid's life better for that day, that's pretty special. I'm fortunate to be in the position that I am to be able to do that."

Instagram from @watson_austin92: Great day with 2 wonderful, strong and courageous young men. We're all worthy of receiving Love. We're all capable of giving love. #bekind #love #nashville #preds Posted @withrepost • @tnkidsbelong Over the course of today, we saw two teenage boys from TN foster care transform. They came in as reserved, closed, quiet and shy. Rightfully so. They have been in group homes and part of the system for YEARS, with no place or family to call theirs. With every moment that passed, quality time and attention was paid to them, eye contact was given and they were engaged in focused conversation. They were given special treatment, lavish gifts, and a unique experience. Isn't that what you do for your child? And they blossomed. Their eyes began to light up. Their shoulders lifted and they revealed smiles and laughter. They talked more. Professional athletes and the staff took time to sit with these boys, encourage these boys, and show kindness to them. And it made a difference. Foster care is hard and challenging. But today was a glimpse into what love and pouring into these children can do. Love can change the hardest hearts. They are worth the time to break down the walls they have built for protection. Thank you @predsnhl @predsfoundation @predspup @watson_austin92 (pictured) and the whole organization for pouring in to these children. We are so grateful for the impact of today!

When they arrived that morning, the walls were up, their spirits were guarded against the outside world. It didn't take long for those barriers to come crashing down, however, and the time spent with the Preds brought out the boys' true personalities before the day was done.

"To have a male figure speak affirmation over them, look them in the eyes, ask them about their day, it just goes such a long way because it happens so infrequently," Allender said. "Usually their social workers and teachers are all female, and we're all loving on them and they get that nurturing touch, but to have a male speak to them and offer than encouragement and affirmation to them, it means a lot."

They still wait for that forever home, but there's a renewed promise gained from an experience like this. And while that part may be missing from their lives at the moment, the boys are still just like everybody else.

The Preds saw that, and the boys are now one day closer to receiving that love all the time.

"You start thinking about things like that, what these kids are going through, and it's tough because they're great kids," Rinne said. "I'm just very hopeful for them and for their future, and hopefully there's good things to come."

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