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Apple Valley boy forgoes birthday gifts for donations to help save lives

Eastview Hockey Peewee has raised more than $16,000 to date for the Play for Patrick Foundation

by Brian Halverson / Special to Wild.com

Whoever originated the phrase 'good things come in small packages' created it for people like Austin Dwyer. The 12-year-old Apple Valley resident and Eastview Hockey Association Peewee A player is a hero, not only to his local community, but to young athletes throughout the State of Hockey. 

For the last five years, the soft-spoken young man has chosen to forego packages on his birthday in lieu of donations to the Play for Patrick Foundation, a cause near and dear to his heart and thousands of others. Since the age of seven, Dwyer has raised more than $15,000 for Play for Patrick, an organization dedicated to reducing or eliminating sudden death in children due to undetected heart defects.

 "He's the top donor," said Play for Patrick founder Mike Schoonover. "And that's not to diminish what everybody else is doing, but it's pretty cool that your top donor is a 12-year-old kid." 

The foundation was created by Schoonover and his wife, Gayle, in memory of their son Patrick Schoonover, a 14-year-old Eastview Bantam AA player who on Nov. 14, 2014 collapsed on the ice at a tournament in Brainerd and later died at an area hospital. An autopsy revealed Patrick suffered from several undetected cardiac abnormalities, but it was an aortic aneurysm - a rupture of the body's largest artery - which ended his promising young life. 

Dwyer said he was aware of Patrick's death at the time but, as a 5-year-old, the tragedy wasn't something he could fully grasp at that age. 

"But the whole hockey community, it impacted, because he was such a good player and a nice person that it just impacted everyone," Dwyer said. 

Play for Patrick partners with the University of Minnesota Physicians Heart Clinics to make basic echocardiogram and EKG testing accessible for as many people between the ages of 14 and 24 as possible in its effort to detect abnormalities similar to Patrick's which cannot be found in a standard sports physical.  

This is accomplished through Play for Patrick Youth Heart Screening events like the one held Oct. 30 at Eastview High School. 

The foundation's 23rd screening, and first since February of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, screened 134 young men and women resulting in the discovery of one minor variant, three abnormal structural heart conditions and two with high blood pressure. All will follow up with their primary care physicians to monitor and/or treat them as needed. 

Dwyer was recognized for his efforts prior to the screening in front of the dozens of clapping volunteers donning Minnesota North Star-themed t-shirts adorned with the Play for Patrick logo in front and 'Play with Heart' scripted on the back. Schoonover presented Dwyer with a hockey stick from the Wild autographed by his favorite player, Jared Spurgeon, and pointed to the brand-new Philips CX50 portable ultrasound machine his contributions made possible. 

Tweet from @playforpatrick: Thank you @EVHSAthletics 134 kids screened found 1-Normal with minor variant, 2-High BP, 3-Abnormal (Bicuspid Aortic Valve-(BAV), Dilated Aortic Root, Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO)and taught 120 kids/adults CPR & AED awareness #Playwithheart #Playforpatrick pic.twitter.com/bGoNbCNxLu

"He's quite the remarkable young man, he's a goodwill ambassador for us, and I want him to see that this is what we purchased with his money," Schoonover told the crowd of volunteers. "So, this is going to take pictures of young hearts for many, many years to come." 

Play for Patrick has now performed 3,777 screens overall, finding 228 with elevated blood pressure and 252 with abnormal electrical or structural heart defects. The foundation has also now provided CPR and automated external defibrillator (AED) training for nearly 3,500 adults and children.  

Among the volunteers present was Colin Tollefson, a junior at the University of St. Thomas and a friend, teammate, and classmate of Patrick's. Tollefson was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome at the very first Play for Patrick screening in 2015, also at Eastview High School. 

According the Mayo Clinic, WPW occurs when an extra electrical pathway appears between the heart's upper and lower chambers resulting in heart beating abnormally fast at times. A procedure known as radiofrequency catheter ablation successfully destroyed the problem pathway in Tollefson's heart. Had it gone undetected, Tollefson says he may have suffered the same fate as Patrick. 

"If it wouldn't have been caught, I could have died from sudden cardiac arrest at any time," said Tollefson, whose Bantam B2 team was playing the same weekend in Brainerd so he witnessed his friend's horrifying final moments. "I'm just super thankful the whole Schoonover family turned a loss of a loved one into a great organization and just a great cause that's helping out other families."  

In addition, Play for Patrick donates AEDs to area schools with Eastview's athletic department becoming recipient No. 12 at the October event. In what Schoonover says may be a first-of-its-kind in the Twin Cities, Eastview also received an all-season storage cabinet, designed to protect the device from summertime heat and frigid winter temperatures, which will be placed somewhere within the school's outdoor athletic facilities and accessible 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. 

Dwyer has grown up in Apple Valley with his mother Niki, his 8-year-old brother A.J. and his dad Aaron, who himself grew up in Apple Valley. Aaron played hockey for Apple Valley High School but now coaches both of his sons in the Eastview association, including the Peewee A team, of which Austin is a member. 

As Dwyer's seventh birthday approached his parents asked him if he could raise money for one thing this year, what would he want it to be? 

"I picked Play for Patrick because he's from the Eastview community and he played for Eastview," Dwyer said. "So, I kind of just picked that and kept raising money for him." 

Dwyer's annual fundraising typically begins right after Christmas because his birthday is near the end of January. "So, we do about a month, kind of, push," Niki said. "We also host a Super Bowl party, so we also do some fundraising there. 

"But, you know, obviously social media has made a big impact in being able to raise money too." 

The Dwyers would record videos of Austin on Facebook promoting his fundraising efforts and giving status updates along the way. He would direct people to the Play for Patrick GoFundMe page, asking them to donate while using the #austin4Patrick hashtag. 

When the Schoonovers opted to switch fundraising platforms from GoFundMe to Facebook last year, Austin made the switch as well.  

Niki says when Austin first started it was primarily family who donated and roughly $1,000 was raised. But the donors expanded beyond family, and even friends, exponentially over the years to where Austin generated around $6,000 in donations in 2021 alone. 

"We've had complete strangers donating and the word has just kind of spread every year," Niki said. "I'm proud of him. It's selfless but he's also very fortunate, so this is one way that he can give back." 

While Austin does not concern himself with the possibility that he, too, could potentially be skating with an undetected heart issue, his mom says she is counting the days until her children's 14th birthdays.  

 "This is just a phenomenal way for (the Schoonovers) to build (Patrick's) legacy and really support the communities," Niki said. "And it's not just hockey. They're supporting many communities and there's lots of kids in there from different sports." 

Austin has no plans to end his fundraising efforts anytime soon, saying he wants to, "keep raising money every birthday and help as many kids as I can with all the money I've donated or raised." 

He has even been an inspiration to his peers. 

"As we get older, everyone starts to remember him more because we were little and we really didn't know what happened," Dwyer said. "But now everyone knows what happened and a lot of my friends are starting to raise money now for him too." 

As for future screenings, the Eastview Hockey Association annually hosts a Play For Patrick Bantam tournament in early January in which all participants are eligible to be screened and on Sunday, Feb. 6, a screening will be held at the Twin Cities Orthopedics Training Haus in Eagan. Finally, on April 9, there will be a screening at Lakeville North High School. Play for Patrick is also exploring the possibility of conducting a screening in the Rochester area sometime next year.  

Schoonover says while they could always use any and all financial contributions, the biggest areas of need are for volunteers, primarily cardiac medical professionals which are hard to come my for a myriad of reasons.   

"What we do here and the results we get is one story," Schoonover said. "But then you have a young kid raising money for a foundation that does work to save young lives, that just adds kind of another element and another dynamic. It's just amazing and I'm still in awe that a kid would do that." 


To contribute to Austin Dwyer's fundraising effort, visit Austin's birthday fundraiser for Patrick.

For those without Facebook, donations can be made via Venmo but don't forget to include #Austin 


Checks can be mailed to:   

Play For Patrick
1060 County Road E, West
Shoreview, MN 55126 

To volunteer at a screening, visit PlayforPatrick.org or contact Mike Schoonover at mike@playforpatrick.org


Photo by Brian Halverson

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