Parents turn tragedy into opportunity for at-risk youth

This year, Michael and Lori Yelizarov parted with their son Noah's hockey equipment.

Anyone who knows this longtime Richmond couple well knows it couldn't have been easy to do given that their son Noah, a beloved hockey goalie with Richmond Minor Hockey, died in a tragic accident in Phuket, Thailand in 2004.

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But the Yelizarovs' are one of the most generous, loving and humble couples you will ever meet.

I know.

I'm a longtime family friend and committee member for the 7th Annual Noah Yelizarov Memorial 2011 hockey tournament, which is going to be held on Sunday, Aug. 28 at its new venue, the Richmond Oval.

The only reason I found out that they donated their son's hockey equipment is because I interviewed Susan Hall, board member of the H.E.R.O.S. (Hockey Education Reach Out Society) program.

With funds from our 2010 fundraiser, the Yelizarov's recently bestowed the first of an ongoing annual $3,000 scholarship in Noah's memory, to be divided between three deserving young people in Vancouver's eastside, all of whom are alumni of the H.E.R.O.S. program. (The program empowers underprivileged youth through hockey).

But the couple went further. After meeting the 18-year-old, who proudly wears Noah's equipment, they also purchased a pair of new hockey skates and new helmet for him.

"Michael also took him out for dinner and to a Canucks game," said Hall. "It was such a privileged, for me and the hockey players, to meet Noah's parents at our end-of-the-year banquet.

"It gave our youth an opportunity to see and make a connection with Noah's parents, to learn about Noah's spirit and his legacy his parents have nurtured.

"The kids were visibly moved by watching the video of Noah's Journey."

One of the goals of the H.E.R.O.S. program, she said, is to encourage the kids to stay in school.

"Hockey is the catalyst to positive changes such as staying in school," Hall added. "The financial barriers for these young people are so high. Noah's scholarship will allow for them to purchase the extras, such as books and some tuition, for their post-secondary education."

She went on to tell me she has heard hundreds of tragic stories of youth, whose lives have been turned around through H.E.R.O.S.

"It has such a powerful impact on these young kids and it touches so many lives through its mentoring and hockey program.," Hall added. "The kids in this community are very vulnerable to gangs and here they feel safe.

"They also learn that they can do anything, knowing that people care about them."

Michael Yelizarov first learned about the program through a family member.

"Susan Hall's son played on the same hockey team as Lori's cousin's son and they got talking about the program.

"When I met Paulette at a family dinner, she told me about H.E.R.O.S. and I immediately wanted to know more.

"H.E.R.O.S. is exactly what Noah's memory is all about . his love for the game and his love for giving abound in the H.E.R.O.S. program.

"It's an unbelievable program."

After having spent time researching the program and meeting some of its youngest members, Michael asked our committee if we could support the program every year - it was a resounding yes!

Then, Michael Yelizarov told me he's putting out the challenge to local businesses involved in the food industry to match or better our $3,000 yearly commitment.

"So many of the young hockey players come to the program hungry and if anyone would like to match our $3,000 scholarship to provide food for these kids it would be great," said Michael Yelizarov. "It would be so nice to be able to provide healthy snacks . I know it would be very much appreciated by the kids and the volunteers who work with them."

The couple's son Jonathan Yelizarov, 29, echoes his parents' dedication of the program.

"I knew that my dad had come across the program and he got involved by giving Noah's gear to one of the alumnus of the pro-

"I thought it would be right up my alley to coach these little kids as I love hockey and I love kids."

So, Jonathan Yelizarov, who has a heart just about as big as his parents, contacted the organizers at H.E.R.O.S. and said he was interested in volunteering.

Last month, he laced up his skates and hit the ice to teach kids, ranging in ages from nine to 13, the basics of hockey.

"I helped some who had never been on skates, basically by helping them gear up and then I got on the ice with them to practice some light, basic drills," Jonathan Yelizarov said.

"I must admit I spent most of my time joking with them and keeping things light."

Of the H.E.R.O.S. program, he couldn't say enough positive things about it.

"I think the program is amazing and it was tons of fun," he said. "You could just see it in their eyes how much they were enjoying themselves . they were pretty excited."

Jonathan Yelizarov went on to say: "H.E.R.O.S. is a great way to carry on Noah's legacy and his love of the game. As a hockey player all my life, when you see these kids put on their gear for the first time .wow, it's awesome to see that, because you remember that you felt the same way."

When asked about H.E.R.O.S., Lori Yelizarov added this: "Kids who are challenged as Noah himself was (Noah was deaf and wore a hearing aid), Noah would be so proud and thrilled that we were giving an opportunity to kids who need help overcoming difficulties in life."

"H.E.R.O.S. is such an incredibly important and terrific organization and we are so happy to be affiliated with them."

This year's fundraiser is full of firsts. Besides a bigger, new venue, there will be a beer garden and dinner in the Oval's Legacy Lounge.

Last year, we raised more than $30,000. The funds were donated to Canuck Place, BC Children's Hospital and H.E.R.O.S.

"We hope to raise enough to keep giving to our charities and perhaps go back to Thailand to help the hospital in Phuket, which desperately needs equipment in the maternity ward," said Michael Yelizarov.

If you aren't a hockey player, come out and support the players, enjoy yourself in the beer garden, meet some of the NHL hockey players from the Boston Bruins and Dallas Stars, and have fun supporting a good cause.

The 7th Annual Noah Yelizarov Memorial 2011 Hockey Tournament is being held on Sunday, Aug. 28 beginning at noon at the Richmond Olympic Oval.

There are still tickets available for the dinner/auction, which begins at 6 p.m. in the Legacy Lounge in the Richmond Oval.

For more information, tickets or to donate an auction item, call me at 604-649-3516 or Gayle Morris at 604-418-8100 or visit the website at www.NoahMemorialHockey.ca.

For more information about the H.E.R.O.S. program, visit www.heroshockey.com.

mhopkins@richmond-news.com

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