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    "Let's Be Good Neighbors" provided by Jake Watkins of Trainwreck Sports

    "Let's Be Good Neighbors" provided by Jake Watkins of Trainwreck Sports

    "God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”

    Now I’m not a particularly religious man, but for the past week that phrase has been on repeat in my head. It’s not because of anything that’s happened to me. I’m a fortunate man by all accounts. But last week Thursday, I got a phone call at 1:44 p.m. It was a 716 area code, but not a number I had saved (or blocked). I was fairly certain that someone was about to check on my car warranty or my student loan payments.


    To preface this, recently, Trainwreck Sports and 26 Shirts entered into a media partnership, the terms of which I can’t disclose. The cliff notes of it: Trainwreck Sports is going to be spreading the word about all of the difficult, inspirational and necessary work that 26 Shirts does.

    When the partnership began I tried to think about how I could best use my skills and knowledge to hold up our end of the bargain. I began thinking back to my video production days, at St. Francis High School and beyond. I remembered an Alumni Spotlight I produced with the help of our mentor Mr. Messore (I say mentor because he was genuinely much more than a high school teacher moderating a club). That Alumni Spotlight was about Dan Gigante, a member of the class of 1991, who started his own “Buy One Give One” t-shirt company called You and Who. 

    Fast-forward to 2021 and I have another opportunity to promote Dan’s work. I pondered, conceptualized, and came up with Good Neighbors, an interview series with the beneficiaries of 26 Shirts individual campaigns. The beneficiaries are often people and families who have fallen on hard times. I knew the conversations would be difficult, but they’d be worth it. I figured I knew what I was getting myself into.


    That phone call that I received on Thursday, April 8 at 1:44 p.m. was from Phil VanKoughnet, the father of Sophie VanKoughnet, 26 Shirts’ latest beneficiary. I answered the call, but the audio kept cutting out.

    “I can’t hear you,” Phil said.

    “How about now?”

    “Oh, that’s better.”

    “Okay great! So I’m looking to inter…”

    “I’m sorry I can’t hear you anymore.”

    “Oh really? Maybe I’m connected to Bluetooth by mistake?” (I was in fact connected to bluetooth but the problem persisted even after I figured that out)

    This happened for two out of the three minutes we were on the phone. I’m not kidding. But Phil wasn’t frustrated at all. He was just as confused as I was. Somehow we decided that I’d interview them at noon the very next day, even though I’m pretty sure he just guessed at that being what I said. I texted him the next morning to make sure we were on for noon and thankfully he said yes. He said yes even though I forgot to send him a Zoom invitation, but I did email his wife, Stephanie, to ignore the invitation’s 1:00 p.m. end time.

    No, I never claimed to be a perfect person. Nobody is.

    But Stephanie and Phil… they’re perfect for each other, and despite the hand they’ve been dealt, they’re doing an amazing job raising their children, which brings me to the reason I was interviewing them in the first place. Sophie was born with Pallister-Hall Syndrome, an extremely rare genetic condition that has less than 100 confirmed cases in the world. 

    Stephanie described the diagnosis as numbing. Phil likened it to being struck by lightning, but they had an inkling that something was wrong before finding out the exact details of Sophie’s condition. Imagine knowing that you were going to be struck by lightning, knowing that a phenomenon with a 1 in 500,000 chance of occurring was going to happen. I’ll be honest. I can’t. I’m shaking typing this, just imagining that, especially because being born with Pallister-Hall is even less likely than coming into contact with a lightning strike. But those two, reliving the moments as they dictated what is likely one of the worst moments of their lives… they were strong. No tears. No wiping their eyes. Phil’s hands were folded and Stephanie fiddled with her gold bracelet, while my eyes were filling up. 

    They described Sophie as headstrong, brave and happy, three traits that she absolutely inherited from her parents. They said that she inspires them to be strong every day, and I don’t doubt that whatsoever. But from an outside perspective, I truly believe that strength runs in that family.

    When they said that they took the kids to the Rochester Museum of Play, it was the first mention of her brother. I asked how he handled the situation. This didn’t make it into the video. A lot of great stuff didn’t make it into the video.

    They said that he’s been great, but, as any six and half-year-old might react to having a little sibling with a serious genetic condition, he at first didn’t understand why she was getting so much more attention than him. That’s something that I never thought of. How do you tell your son that his little sibling is going to take up most of mommy and daddy’s time? Being a perfect parent is an impossible task, especially under circumstances like the VanKoughnets’. But these photos are of a brother who loves his sister. I imagine them growing up, him being overprotective when she brings home her first boyfriend.  His face just says how much he cares for her. 

    Stephanie, Phil, you two have done an amazing job raising your children and it shows.

    This photo came while they were telling me how they met. How’s this for a love story: they met in grade school when they were six. They went to high school together but rarely talked. They went to college together, took the same Psychology class, and didn’t even know until they reconnected on Facebook nine years ago.

    I met my girlfriend in UB’s dining hall and one of the first things she learned about me is that I wanted to steal glassware from the dining hall for my apartment in Elmwood Village.

    These two were always in each other’s lives and barely knew it. They were actually made for each other. And through everything they’ve been through together, they still get this happy telling the story of how they met. 

    These complete strangers that I’ve talked to for a cumulative 21 minutes and some change… I have so much respect for them. These are GOOD people. Before I mentioned that old mantra “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” I’m convinced Stephanie and Phil can handle anything that gets put in their way. They’re an inspiration for me as someone who looks forward to becoming a parent someday (very well after I finally move out of my girlfriends’ parents’ basement). These are people who don’t deserve gargantuan medical debt due to a genetic condition they have no control over, and they don’t deserve to have to ask for anyone’s help. 

    So allow me. 

    Buffalo, Bills Mafia, and anyone anywhere else reading this, go to the 26 Shirts website and get yourself one of these incredible shirts, or a hoodie if that’s more your style. And in so doing, support my new friends, the VanKoughnets. 

    Buffalo is The City of Good Neighbors, so let’s live up to the name.

    Sophie VanKoughnet

    Sophie VanKoughnet

    3-year-old Sophie VanKoughnet is described by her mom, Stephanie as vivacious and full of life with strength well beyond her years. That strength is coupled with fierce determination to fight more than any toddler should have to.

    “It all started even before she was born,” says Stephanie. “I had a lot of problems prenatal, but doctors weren’t quite sure what was wrong and even after she was born, she passed all health checks.”

    However, Sophie was not gaining weight and her tiny body struggled with nursing. Every time she tried to eat, Sophie could not swallow properly and would aspirate. Stephanie says at just five-weeks-old, she had immediate surgery to have a gastrostomy tube or feeding tube inserted. Through 11-months, Sophie only took in liquids through her g tube.

    “Sophie was eventually diagnosed with Pallister-Hall Syndrome, an extremely rare condition with less than 100 diagnosed cases in history. There is a man diagnosed with Pallister-Hall in Australia that we have reached out to, but there really isn’t much information out there.”

    Since the diagnosis, the family has asked many questions regarding Sophie’s health, but there have not been many answers. In her short and fragile life, Sophie has undergone ten surgeries and also deals with hypoglycemia, causing complications with her blood sugar, as well as a hematoma in her brain, which could eventually lead to blindness.

    “My husband and I were in zombie mode when she was a baby and even now it’s extremely difficult, but we are all adapting,” Stephanie says. “One thing I can say loud and proud is that Sophie faces so many obstacles, but she adapts to them all. Her complex condition is a tough pill to swallow, but she has changed me as a person for the better.”

    The family is tight knit, with Sophie having a six-year-old brother, who is also impacted by the struggles of her critical condition. The family are die-hard Buffalo sports fans and think so highly of the impact the community has in helping those in need. That’s why when they heard about a shirt drop for Sophie, they were “over the moon” thrilled to have awareness around Sophie’s journey.

    “26 Shirts…Buffalo…WNY and this campaign give me hope. Sometimes it all seems like too much, but then things like this come up and I feel hopeful,” Stephanie explains.

    She adds, “Sophie has taught me and others to live in the moment and never give up. I hope out of anything that comes from Sophie’s story that people feel inspired to keep going, no matter the challenge ahead.”
    This story is provided in partnership with Hope Rises. Learn more at

    Ralph Esten

    Ralph Esten

    Ralph Esten, also known affectionately by friends and family as “Ralphie”, has been battling a brain tumor since September 2011. He has fought through numerous painful rounds of chemotherapy throughout the years, and even participated in trials to prevent the tumor for progressing. But friend, Lynn Gehlert says that the tumor continues to grow and Ralphie has decided to stop treatment.

    “His personality is larger than life and in our small town, everyone knows Ralphie,” she exclaims. “He has put up a really strong fight for a very long time.”

    Working as a dedicated employee of the local pizzeria, Ralphie has had the opportunity to meet almost everyone in his entire community and Lynn says that he greets everyone with a huge smile and warm personality. Along with his diehard passion for the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres, his spirit is infectious. 

    “He is married to the love of his life, absolutely adores his nieces and nephews and has a stepson and grandson. Right now, they are all focusing on spending as much time together as they can while Ralphie is feeling good and has normal sparks of his personality.”

    When 26 Shirts stepped in to financially support the family, Lynn admits that they are typically reluctant to accept help because there are always others who need it more. But, the expensive medical bills from the chemotherapy and trials are stacking up.

    “Having this shirt in his honor is a huge blessing, and our community alone is thrilled to help Ralphie through these shirt sales.”

    This story is provided in partnership with Hope Rises. Learn more at

    Finn Erlandson

    Finn Erlandson

    Amanda Erlandson describes her 11-year-old son, Finn, as adventurous and outdoorsy, recounting a 40+ mile bike ride they took over the summer as a family. 

     “A ball of energy – he loves to ski, bike, hike and just be outside,” she says.

     But when he struggled to breathe walking up a flight of stairs, she took that as a warning sign to seek urgent medical attention.

     “After an Xray of his chest, the doctor called me immediately and told us to get him to Children’s [Oishei Hospital] as fast as we could. It turns out he had a mass in his chest and they couldn’t even see his one lung.”

    Finn was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma – a childhood cancer that requires aggressive treatment to knock down. The family spent the next three weeks in the hospital, and now return every three weeks for a five-day stay, so Finn can receive life-saving chemotherapy. So far, he has fiercely braved six rounds.

    “He’s been amazing through it all,” exclaims Amanda. “The days in the hospital when he has no appetite, he knows he has to eat and drink and walk the halls to feel better. At one time, he walked 101 laps of the hospital to get his body moving and the nurses were astonished. He just keeps going and keeps all of us strong.”

    When the family learned that they would benefit from a 26 Shirts launch, they were extremely humbled by the kindness of their community.

    “Finn is definitely a town hero in the very small town we are from. There are ‘Finn’s Fans’ signs everywhere. From that hometown attention to this campaign, I get teary-eyed thinking of all the support for my son. It’s amazing and truly humbling.”

    This story is provided in partnership with Hope Rises:

    Gage Stacey

    Gage Stacey

    11-year-old Gage Stacey was suffering from migraine headaches, blurry vision and uneven coordination when his father, Matthew knew something was terribly wrong.

    “We went in for an initial brain scan, and were immediately sent to Children’s Hospital to look further into what was happening," he explains.

    Within 24 hours of that initial visit, Gage was sent in for an 11-hour emergency brain surgery to remove a tumor. The unknown of the situation was extremely terrifying.

    “We learned that Gage had Medulloblastoma, brain cancer near his brain stem,” Matthew says. “Now he is in the thick of chemotherapy.”

    Gage just finished round three of chemo treatment and is expected to endure up to nine rounds through September. By far, the hardest challenge through this all, Matthew says, is the side effects.

    “It’s almost like he has suffered a stroke. He has lost his strength and coordination on the right side of his body, but we are turning to the positives. Luckily, he didn’t get it severe, and hasn’t lost his ability to walk entirely. He walks with a walker, and is getting his speech back.”

    Gage’s prognosis is far from grim. Matthew says doctors are confident and the family has hope.

    “Doctors know how to treat his diagnosis, so we are clinging to that positivity. Also, the support from everyone, including 26 Shirts, has been mind-blowing. Thank you so much to this community!”

    Funds from the design of this shirt help the family with the medical bills that are quickly stacking up.
    This story is written by Kate Glaser and provided in partnership with Hope Rises: