It was a dismal day on the football field for Carolina back on Sept. 25, 2004, the Tar Heels being soundly pounded by Louisville by a 34-0 margin. But there was a story unfolding in the stands that afternoon that has ignited into more than a dozen years of notable service by Carolina student-athletes on behalf of UNC Children’s Hospital.

Tar Heel lacrosse player David Werry that day led a group of softball players in hosting about eight children being treated at UNC Children’s Hospital, along with their siblings and parents. They met pre-game at Eddie Smith Field House for pizza, games and fellowship, then walked to Kenan Stadium where they watched the game together.

“We knew from probably 15 minutes into the first event there was something special here,” Werry remembers. “Both seeing the joy of the children and their families but also the student-athletes, being able to feel like they were giving back and doing something positive.

“That first day brought us lot of happiness, went well, there was lots of energy and smiles on the kids’ faces.”

And thus Carolina Dreams was launched, a program built around Tar Heel student-athletes hosting patients from UNC Children’s to a Carolina sporting event. The first year in 2004- 05 included about eight functions built mostly around football, men’s basketball, soccer, lacrosse or baseball games. The children over a dozen years have mostly been out-patients at UNC Children’s.

“One of the most rewarding parts of the program has been learning about Children’s Hospital and seeing the commitment of the staff and physicians,” Werry says. “It’s truly amazing what they do not only for Chapel Hill but the state of North Carolina.”

Werry, who played lacrosse for the Tar Heels and attended Carolina on a Morehead-Cain Scholarship from 2002-06, had the idea for Carolina Dreams shortly after he arrived at Chapel Hill from his home in Canada. His older brother attended Carolina on a Morehead three years ahead of Dave.

“Giving back was instilled in my brother and me by our parents from an early age,” he says. “I’d been involved in a variety of stuff growing up. And I came down here on a Morehead, a program that promotes giving back. It was pretty natural to want to find a way to help.”

The problem, Werry soon learned, was finding the time for community service within the demands of class time, homework, writing papers and then practicing and training for a varsity sport.

“A lot of my teammates and fellow student-athletes wanted to be involved, but most opportunities weren’t structured in a way that made it very easy,” he says. “Most people don’t appreciate the demands on student-athletes’ time. My idea was to create something that’s really simple and easy for the student-athlete to say yes to and get involved, as well as take advantage of something so powerful as the Children’s Hospital right next door on campus.”

At the outset, Werry, the UNC Athletic Department and Children’s Hospital staff did the legwork—setting up teams and dates, inviting the patients and their families, finding support money for T-shirts and food, acquiring tickets. All it took then was for a team to agree to host the group to a game.

“We did all the upfront work,” he says. “That made getting a team to sign up really easy. Even out of the gate we didn’t have any issues getting teams interested. It got easier and easier once a team had done it the first time.”

Werry graduated from Chapel Hill in 2006 and today is vice president, head of consumer health products at Aetna Inc. and is married to former Tar Heel soccer standout Heather O’Reilly, who during her Carolina career lent a hand with Carolina Dreams and a number of other outreach activities—from organizing a canned food drive, raising relief funds for Hurricane Katrina and being a part of the Share Your Holiday program. She also volunteered time at the Ronald McDonald House in Chapel Hill and with Habitat for Humanity.

“Carolina Dreams is still going strong,” Dave says. “Year after year it continues to impress me, the student-athletes who take it over and keep improving it and keep it going. It’s been fun to watch from outside and be helpful where I could. At the beginning I was focused on making sure it continued. It’s not that impactful if something only lasts during few years I was there.”

“David is one of the most respected student-athletes we’ve ever had and one of the most determined as well,” says former athletic director Dick Baddour. “Carolina Dreams was his idea, his vision, his concept. He went from team to team, drawing up support, outlining what their obligations would be. I am confident he was never turned down. He was that strong a leader. And what was equally important was he put a structure in place for the program to continue after he left. He didn’t want it to be a flash in the pan. It was not about him. He wanted it to stand the test of time.”

Living in Chapel Hill allows Dave and Heather to remain close to their former programs, Carolina athletics and the Rams Club.

“We both owe lot of gratitude to the University, specifically the Athletic Department, for the experiences we had,” he says. “One of joys we have of living here is being so close and being able to give back and be a part of it.”

This story appeared in the DECEMBER 2017 edition of Born & Bred