UNLV women’s basketball coach Kathy Olivier tickled the 5-year-old’s right foot as he lay in his hospital bed, but the child, Thomas Rodriguez, tried not to grin.
Finally, he couldn’t help himself.
A smile came to his and the faces of lots of others Thursday, and the happy looks didn’t belong just to ailing kids at Sunrise Children’s Hospital.
They also belonged to Olivier and athletes from UNLV’s men’s and women’s basketball and football teams, who delivered toys, posters, balls and other items to provide holiday cheer to those who aren’t experiencing what are supposed to be the joys of the season.
Some children are only temporary residents of the hospital and would be home before Christmas. The condition of others is much more serious.
Nine-year-old Angel Huynh, who has leukemia, had experienced a rough couple of days, feeling the effects of pneumonia. But the shy, smiling girl showed no outward signs of anything being wrong as she watched the UNLV athletes walk into her room.
"She’s really excited and happy to see people coming in and giving us support," her dad, Thomas, said.
Chace Stanback and Kendall Wallace represented the Rebels’ men’s basketball team, Jamie Smith and Briana Charles were there from the women’s team, and Aaron Reed, Yusef Rodgers and Doug Zismann were on hand from the football squad.
Smith, a senior, has made the trip ever since joining UNLV. While growing up in Hawaii, she provided Aloha spirit while volunteering in hospitals and schools, doing what she could to help children.
"I love kids," said Smith, a four-year starter closing in on 1,000 career points and rebounds. "It’s so rewarding to come to a place like this because these are kids who are in here for the holidays for the most part, so it’s good to see them and to see their smiles while we’re in there.
"You kind of learn to go in there with happy spirits. You can’t show (sadness) to them. You realize all the opportunity and privilege that we have. We’re not in the hospital. We’re out there playing in the courts and on the fields, so it’s definitely an eye opener."
Stanback and Reed participate in other community events for the Rebels, but this was their first trip to Sunrise.
Stanback, a senior and perhaps the marquee player in the school’s best-known program, said the visit helps him realize how fortunate he is, but that’s not what this trip was all about.
"It puts a smile on my face to come in here and make a kid happy by giving him some toys," Stanback said.
Reed, a junior H-back who didn’t play this season because of a leg injury, said he felt a mixture of emotions.
"They’re just happy to see somebody’s face," Reed said. "It’s very heartwarming to help, but at the same time, it’s kind of a Catch-22. It definitely doesn’t feel great. Your heart goes out to them.
"It’s something catching a pass, catching a touchdown. That’s all great, but when you walk into a room and you make somebody else’s day better because you’re there, in my book, that’s the best."
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.