Round Rock Responds To Tragedy With Service
On the day after Christmas, Round Rock Express (Pacific Coast) president Chris Almendarez and his two sons will board a plane, along with about 25 of their closest friends, and take the long, taxing journey to Lusaka, Zambia.
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Almendarez has made the trip twice before—but never quite under these circumstances. He expects the day of their arrival to be “one of the most emotional days” of their lives, a culmination of 16 months of emotional days—a proud accomplishment, but also a bittersweet reminder.
The last time Almendarez went to Zambia was in December 2014, joined by sons Chase and Luke and wife Jana. The mission trip was a moving experience for the entire family, but particularly for Jana. Chris remembers how touched she was visiting with the orphans there. So touched that she and Chris sponsored a child named George and sent him financial support every month. That was vintage Jana: empathetic, considerate and giving, steadfastly grounded in her Christian faith.
Chris never would’ve imagined then that he’d return to Zambia two years later to open a home for orphans built in Jana’s honor. He couldn’t have possibly known that he’d lose his wife to cancer.
“June 28 of 2015 will forever be the day that changed my life,” Almendarez said. “That was the day she was diagnosed. And from that day on until she passed, we were in fight mode, and you look back and go, ‘Wow.’ ”
Six months after that 2014 Zambia trip, doctors diagnosed Jana with stage IV glioblastoma, an aggressive, malignant tumor in her brain. What followed was a very difficult and —given Chris’ position with the Express—public battle with cancer. The attention was understandably overwhelming at times.
“I tell folks, ‘Some days I wish I was a dishwasher at Whataburger or something and nobody knew,’ ” Almendarez said.
But everyone knew. Jana had close relationships with many of the Express staff members and was especially close with the wives of Express founder Reid Ryan and CEO Reese Ryan.
For 17 years, the Express, the Triple-A affiliate of the Rangers, has made giving back to the central Texas community a top priority, and the franchise continued to do so in 2016, raising more than $600,000 during in-stadium events and donating more than $788,000 to various charities. But the Express took special interest in Jana's condition--a highly personal and emotional cause.
The Express displayed #TeamJana and #JanaStrong on the Dell Diamond outfield wall. The staff designed T-shirts and spread awareness on social media. Reese Ryan called Chris every day to check on Jana's status. When the Express staff learned that Jana was too ill to leave home and go on a planned wedding anniversary to Napa Valley, they brought Napa Valley to her, surprising Chris and Jana with wines and cheeses at home.
"It was a very emotional year of course with the passing of Jana," Reese Ryan said, "and the way that our staff responded to that, really rallied around Chris, our president, and his family, and how the community rallied around him, it was pretty spectacular to watch."
Chris and the Round Rock family lost Jana on May 14.
Suddenly, Chris, 43, faced the reality of single parenthood, with one son in college and the other in high school. How would he get through the rest of the season? The holidays?
The Express and the Round Rock community made sure he wouldn't have to go through it alone. They would build something beautiful out of the sadness.
And they'd do it together.
About a week after Jana's funeral, Reid Ryan joined Chris and his two sons for lunch. Reid and his wife Nicole wanted to do something for the Almendarez family. Something big. They had floated around the idea of a trip to Zambia. Chris initially was hesitant. It was all still very raw.
But on this day, Reid wouldn't take no for answer. He had a plan already in place.
"We went to lunch," Chris said. "And he said, 'We're going, and you're going, and the boys are going, and we're campaigning to build a house for Jana.'
"Both my boys were at lunch with us that day, and it was the first time in 11 or 12 months that those boys smiled. It gave them hope."
Reid, who became the Astros president of business operations in 2013, communicated the idea to his brother, Reese, and both brothers made lead donations. The Round Rock Express, in conjunction with Ryan-Sanders Baseball, led a campaign to raise $250,000 for the construction of a home for orphaned girls at the Family Legacy Misson's Tree of Life Children's Village in Zambia. They decided to name it Jana's House.
For years, the Express have found ways to contribute to the local community, from building Miracle League and RBI fields to most recently donating $50,000 to expand a Round Rock park for children with special needs. Naturally, the Express turned to philanthropy as a means of healing from Jana's loss, a way to honor her spirit while also helping those in need.
The Round Rock community responded to the project in full force. A traditionally passionate fan base--the Express led the Pacific Coast League in attendance in 2016--Round Rock fans soon exceeded the $250,000 fundraising goal. The project could ultimately raise closer to $275,000.
"People just got behind it and spread the word," Almendarez said. "That was one of the coolest things, knowing that we had a lot of people praying for us and thinking of us. And I tell people, 'You feel that.' . . . It gave us all perspective on what really matters in life."
In the months that followed Jana's death, that was the mantra that united the Round Rock Express staff, the Ryan-Sanders ownership group and the community. It was that unity that made Jana's House possible, that made it possible for the Almendarez family to find solace.
"I think we have the best staff in baseball," Almendarez said. "The last 16 months, I'd debate anybody on it and say hey, 'Here's why. Because this is what these guys have done.' Our whole staff was mourning. My wife was very close to all of them. And I don't know how many times I broke down in front of them. You just can't go through something like that and be stoic."
Almendarez said he was especially appreciative for the Ryan-Sanders group and their emotional and financial support, for Nolan Ryan--Almendarez's childhood hero--for telling him, "Hey, whatever you need, let us know." Reese Ryan said this wasn't the first time they've had an employee go through trying times, and he always tries to view the organization as a family, but this loss was especially tough.
"The situation with Jana was very taxing on my family because she and my wife were very close; she and my girls were very close," Reese said. "For my family on a personal note, it was the first time my girls have lost someone, and my wife lost a friend. That, from a personal standpoint, was emotional."
Reese and his family will make the trip to Zambia on Dec. 26. So will Reid and his family. Express general manager Tim Jackson, whom Almendarez credited for handling the organization throughout this ordeal, will make the journey, too.
The house, which should be ready to open by the new year, will serve as a home for 12 orphan girls--many of whom have never slept in a real bed. Almendarez has taken great care to ensure the house captures Jana's essence, shopping with his mother-in-law and sons for the kinds of decorations Jana might pick out.
Those orphans all know Jana. They know of her passing, and Chris knows emotions will run high when he pulls into the children's village and sees them. But he also believes that Jana will be somewhere above watching.
And she will be proud.
"Even if Jana was here, and I said, 'Babe, it's going to cost you your life, but you're going to save 12 girls,' she was the kind of person--she'd be the first one to sign up," Chris said.
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"Knowing Jana and her kind heart--she'd give you the shirt off her back--she's going to be very happy when we go out there."