Chamblee: Family's Grief Gives Way to Braeden's Playground
A professional golfer like Brandel Chamblee would be the first to tell you how rare it is for a great shot to come out of the deep rough.
For Chamblee and his wife, Karen, the deepest rough of their lives came in the summer of 2000, with the birth of their second son, Braeden ... two months early. Born with complications of his intestines, Braeden died after just nine days.
"He was doing fine," Brandel says. "Five days after his birth, they were getting ready to take him off intravenous fluids and told us we would be able to take him home in a week, but ... life is so fragile."
It was an agonizing time, not only for Brandel and Karen, but for then-3-year-old Brandel Jr., who was already making plans to teach his baby brother how to play his favorite sports.
That excitement about playing, and the three long months Karen spent in the hospital prior to Braeden's birth, were the seeds of a dream that came to full flower in the months following the family's loss.
Remembering her own "cabin fever," Karen thought of how frustrating a long hospital stay must be for small children, yearning to be up and at play. She also called to mind a visit to the Target House in Memphis, and how much the young patients at that facility had loved an open, outdoor play area on the campus.
While the idea of helping create a similar playground at Phoenix Children's intrigued Karen and Brandel, they had no idea how to begin. Two close friends from the pro golfers' tour, Kirk and Cathy Triplett, came up with an idea of creating a foundation in Braeden's name, encouraging other pros to contribute, and then getting the Professional Golf Association to match what tour players raised.
"They came up with the whole idea," Karen says. "We were grieving. We wouldn't have thought of that."
The idea took off like one of Brandel's drives. Chamblee's fellow pros lined up to give their support, and the PGA matched their gifts to bring in a total of $50,000. Support poured in from groups like Phoenix Suns Charities, and Valley golfers dedicated the monies from their annual "Santa Claus Classic," which raised another $50,000. Soon, the Braeden Joseph Chamblee Foundation had its first $100,000.
"We had an incredible start," Karen says. Then came the idea for another golf tournament -- the Braeden's Playground Charity Golf Classic -- with all monies raised going directly to underwrite construction of an outdoor play area at the new Phoenix Children's Hospital.
But Karen had seen enough as a tour wife to know that planning a full-fledged professional tournament wouldn't be child's play. She would need some big-name players -- a lot of them -- and the prospect of cold-calling those household names proved more than a little intimidating.
"In the beginning, it was hard, making that first phone call," she says. "But I decided, 'If I'm going to do it, I have to do it.' I knew I wanted charity, not pity. So I kept pinching myself, and saying, 'I can't cry on the phone.' And, with each phone call, I got a little bit better."
So good, in fact, that when the tournament debuted last April 29, the Chamblees found a host of familiar faces and friends on the fairway: Tom Lehman, Hale Irwin, Tom Purtzer, Rory Sabbatini, Howard Twitty, Jerry Smith, Dan Pohl, Mike Allen, Fuzzy Zoeller. Other athletes and celebrities like Dan Majerle of the Suns, Rob Frederickson of the Cardinals, and former vice president Dan Quayle came out, too.
"The (PGA) families travel together," Karen says. "We've made so many dear friends through this."
The Chamblees were amazed at how many other generous people stepped up to the tee. First in line were the Phoenix Thunderbirds.
"If they hadn't been here, I don't know what I'd have done," Karen says. "They contributed their course, free of charge. They covered the green fees. They made phone calls. They made donations of cash and time."
Between the tournament events and a $10,000 check from the PGA Wives, the Chamblees and their friends raised another $135,000 for the play area, serious planning got underway. Phoenix Children's Hospital broke ground on December 12.
"It makes me happy," Karen says. "It's an overwhelming feeling -- a wonderful feeling. I can't wait to see those kids' faces. What a perfect way to remember Braeden, to see a happy face out there on the playground."
The progress on the project has been "a great learning experience" for Brandel Jr., his mother says. "He talks about Braeden, too. He was very sad when his brother didn't come home from the hospital. It's been good for him to see what's happening" with Braeden's Playground.
"I feel like we've got a good start," she says of the project, though "we've still got a long way to go. It's an incredible hospital." She says she looks forward to volunteering out in the play area, once it's finished. "I want to be out on that playground with the kids."
Not long ago, the Golf Channel came out to interview the Chamblees and profile the Braeden's Playground project. The camera crew requested a child or two for some of the filming, Karen says, and "the hospital brought this sweet little boy over. And when it came time to go, he just wanted to stay on the bench by the playground.
"That really made me feel like this was the right thing to do. I just think about these little kids -- there's nothing like getting outside and playing."
"Braeden only lived nine days," Brandel says, "and it created a lot of sadness and grief for our family and friends. But those nine days will help create bright spots in the lives of other children who wouldn't otherwise have bright spots.
"It will keep his memory alive in a very positive way, and certainly make his short life more meaningful ... even if it is never easy."
This year's Braeden's Playground Charity Golf Classic will be held March 3 at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club.
The 4,500-square-foot outdoor play area is available to patients and their siblings. Features of the playground include:
- A climbing structure
- A putting green
- Phoenix Suns Clubhouse
- Brittany's Stage, where special productions can be performed for patients and their families. The stage is named for Brittany Rogers, a cystic fibrosis patient and budding actress who passed away.