A cause that hits close to home for Ryan Callahan

Ryan and Kyla Callahan get as much out of Cally's Crew as the children and families it helps.
Published December 5 2016
Updated December 6 2016

Josh Fisher laughed as he flopped on the floor in an Amalie Arena suite. But the fun had nothing to do with the Lightning-Islanders game he was attending Nov. 10.

Fisher, 8, was playing Chutes and Ladders with a couple other pediatric cancer patients. It looked like he was winning.

Fisher is in remission following a 31/2-year battle with leukemia. Now he's part of Cally's Crew, a group of patients and their families that Lightning wing Ryan Callahan hosts at Amalie. There's pizza, video games, gift bags and, most importantly, a connection with other children like them.

"For the kids, it's such an amazing experience," said Jessica Fisher, Josh's mom. "It's such a special treat. It takes the pressure off, makes it fun. And doing it with your whole family, it's priceless."

Witnessing this impact from Cally's Crew the past couple seasons made Callahan, 31, and his wife, Kyla, want to do more. So the couple started the Ryan Callahan Foundation in October. They hope a private launch party today at the Tampa Museum of Art can raise the kind of money that will help the foundation really make a difference.

Both Ryan and Kyla's families have been touched by cancer; Callahan's father, Mike, recently received a clean bill of health after a prostate cancer fight. But it was the birth of the Callahans' two kids, Charlotte, 4, and Evelyn, 2, that made this particular cause hit close to home.

"It's always been something I've gravitated towards," Callahan said. "And when we had two daughters of our own, we put ourselves in families' shoes. The strength the parents show, the strength the kids show, is so remarkable that we wanted to do something that can help these families when they're going through tough times."

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Callahan said he may be the face of the foundation, but Kyla is the "driving soul" that makes it run.

Kyla's close family friend, Sarah Mini, was diagnosed at six months old with a brain tumor and lived until she was 6. Callahan's grandfather died of pancreatic cancer. Kyla lost her grandmother.

"We've seen it, we've lived it," said Kyla, who has been with Callahan since their junior year of high school in Rochester, N.Y. "We've felt the heartbreak."

Callahan has wanted to help families like his cope, but didn't know how. After signing a six-year, $34.8 million deal with Tampa Bay in June 2014, Callahan realized the time was right.

"I knew I'd be here for a while, and I was at the point in my career where I felt I've been blessed," Callahan said. "It was time for me to step up and give back a little bit."

Cally's Crew will continue at most home games, with patients drawn from four local nonprofits. The foundation hopes to start a "2-4 club," playing off Callahan's No. 24, in January where each month a selected family will receive a one-day vacation, excursion or experience, like a trip to Disney World. That feature family will be picked after submitting their story on the foundation's web site.

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After the Lightning's 4-1 win over the Islanders, the Fishers joined several families in a room across the hall from the team.

Soon Callahan, in a Lightning T-shirt, shorts and baseball cap, walked in. The kids were stoked, especially Fisher, who was wearing a Callahan No. 24 shirt. They took turns posing for photos with Callahan, who signs autographs and makes small talk. "You're our good luck charm," he tells them.

Kyla couldn't stop smiling. "It's a dream come true," she said.

For all involved.

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.