EAGAN, Minn. – Not all warriors look the same.
In the case of Olivia Baldwin, "warrior" looks like a 7-year-old girl with a sweet smile, blonde hair and sky-blue eyes.
Olivia didn't have a lot to say Wednesday night, but she offered plenty of timid grins from beneath an NFL Crucial Catch-themed beanie.
At age 2, Olivia was diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
She fought hard for two-and-a-half years, enduring chemotherapy, steroids, a bout with sepsis, surgeries and countless hospital stays.
But now Olivia is in remission.
"She's thriving," said her mom, Stephanie. "She has a little bit of peripheral neuropathy that she struggles with; other than that, she's spicy and ruling the first grade."
Olivia and Stephanie, along with three of her four siblings, attended last week's "Pamper Her Purple" event at the Viking Lakes Omni Hotel. The day-long event was hosted by the Vikings, in collaboration with C.J. and Stephanie Ham, along with the American Cancer Society and Sleep Number. The organizations teamed up to honor 15 incredible women of all different ages and backgrounds who have battled or currently are battling cancer.
The group and their respective guests were welcomed at the beginning by Stephanie Ham. The honorees then were treated to an afternoon of spa treatments that included massages, manicures, facials, a steam room and more.
"Olivia actually got to skip school. Her biggest thing is that she wanted to swim in the hotel pool, so we did that," Stephanie Baldwin said with a smile, explaining that the family drove over to the Twin Cities from their hometown of Dawson in Southwest Minnesota. "She got a massage by a professional therapist, which was super fun.
"Then she got to do the steam room, which we loved, and we checked out the hot tub and the salt room and all that good stuff," Stephanie added. "It was lovely here, so nice. Something spectacular for a 7-year-old."
View photos from the 2022 "Pamper Her Purple" event where Vikings players and partners teamed up to impact those affected by cancer.
The annual event is especially close to C.J.'s heart because of his mother Tina's hard-fought battle with pancreatic cancer before succumbing to the disease in May 2020.
C.J. noted that Tina survived for 14 months, much longer than doctors anticipated, after her diagnosis.
"I believe it was her will. It was her will to fight it. And in those 14 months, she experienced so much; she was able to see so much. I was able to bring her to the Pro Bowl, and we were able to experience that as a family. [We went] on a family vacation. All those things, I believe, didn't happen by coincidence," C.J. said. "It's just truly, truly a blessing to be able to be here with you guys. My mom loved to be pampered. She loved to go out and get her nails done, get a massage, get her hair done, whatever that may be. She's here in spirit today.
"She was a fighter – and I know that everybody in this room is a fighter," he added. "I'm just so glad you guys were able to come here and have phenomenal day."
C.J. was part of a panel that also included Vikings defensive tackle Harrison Phillips; Vikings Chief Operating Officer Andrew Miller; Leah O'Connell (wife of Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell); Sleep Number Chair, President and CEO Shelly Ibach and ACS Senior Executive Director Anthony Bass. The panel was moderated by television personality Alexa Score, who since the age of 16 has been living with myeloid leukemia.
Phillips shared that an aunt whom he'd been incredibly close to passed away this spring after battling brain cancer for four-and-a-half months.
"It was a very unfair fight, I would say," said an emotional Phillips. "[The Crucial Catch initiative] does a great job in the NFL of trying to raise awareness of how important these screens can be. Could they have caught this earlier in my aunt's life? Who's the next life that can be saved, or whose life is going to be easier because the cancer was caught earlier?"
The Vikings organization and community efforts are supported by Sleep Number and its mission.
"I see the impact of partnering with ACS every day at Sleep Number. Cancer touches all our team members' lives, and everyone understands the value of quality sleep on your overall wellbeing." Ibach said. "Our team members find meaning in our partnerships and make it their own. Thank you to our Viking partners for extending the opportunity for Sleep Number to send courageous and amazing cancer survivors like Jody Clutter, Ka Thao and Michele Zutz to this special event of respite and fellowship.
"Pamper Her Purple is a celebration of hope," Ibach added. "The women that we're honoring today are bravely facing treatment or recovery. Their lives are not the same as they were before cancer. We're celebrating their spirit and the courage it takes to battle cancer, and the hope that comes with it."
According to Bass, an estimated 10,000 people have passed away from cancer in the state of Minnesota just over the past year. And in 2023, an anticipated 35,000 people in Minnesota will receive new cancer diagnoses.
"It's troubling. But there is hope. Events like this give us hope," said Bass, who played for the Vikings from 1998-99.
"We're excited about the kickoff of Crucial Catch with the Minnesota Vikings and across the NFL," Bass said. "As you look around today, you see that the mission of ACS is working. We're making a difference. People are living longer. People are getting diagnosed and treated, and things are going well. So, we're making great progress. However, there are still challenges ahead."
C.J. expressed appreciation for the NFL's work through Crucial Catch and for the support of Vikings leadership in hosting events like Pamper Her Purple.
Leah O'Connell said making an impact in the community was among the things that most excited her when Minnesota hired Kevin as the team's 10th head coach.
"I love to help and give back – whether that's through youth, through the children's hospital or through Crucial Catch," O'Connell said. "It's hard to channel your focus in one direction because there's so many needs, but this month in particular, how the NFL honors the people that are here through Crucial Catch is just so, so [wonderful]."
Miller emphasized that culture is important to the Vikings organization, from the Wilf family ownership group, to first-year General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, Coach O'Connell and the rest of the organization's leadership.
"But [the culture is] really set by people throughout the organization," Miller said. "We can talk about the values that are important to us, but it's the people that come into the organization and what values are important to them.
"We're trying to set a tone that we care about each other and that we're positive. That we're collaborative and open-minded and inclusive," Miller added. "But ultimately, for us, it really stems from our ownership group. They provide us such incredible support and care about each of us – players, coaches, staff members, alike."
As the evening prepared to wrap up with a full-spread dinner buffet and dessert, C.J. encouraged all of the guests.
"The reason that you guys are here is because you're fighters. I'm a firm believer in, as long as you have the will to live and the will to fight, a lot of things can happen," C.J. said. "I believe that God put everybody on this earth for a reason. I don't necessarily understand the reasons why some people are diagnosed with certain things and have to experience certain things, but I know the fight that you have produces endurance, makes you stronger, makes you a better person.
"You guys are truly, truly my family," he added. "I'm going to do everything I can to help fight with you. But it's you guys that bring me hope in this fight against cancer. I just want to say that I love you. I truly do."
View photos of Vikings players as they served meals and spent time with residents at the Richard M. Schulze Family American Cancer Society Hope Lodge.
Vikings bring encouragement and SKOL spirit to Hope Lodge
In addition to the Pamper Her Purple Event, the Vikings teamed up with Nice Healthcare to bring encouragement and hope to the Richard M. Schulze Family American Cancer Society Hope Lodge.
Vikings teammates Dalvin Tomlinson, Blake Brandel and David Blough were on-site to help serve a meal and spend time connecting with residents.
Tomlinson at a young age lost his father to cancer and sickle cell disease, and Brandel lost his grandmother. Blough's mother LuAnn is a cancer survivor, and he also is deeply connected to the cause through his friendship with the late Tyler Trent. Blough's wife Melissa and Tomlinson's fiancée Giselle also were present at the event.
Each Hope Lodge location offers cancer patients and their caregivers a free place to stay when their best hope for effective treatment may be in another city. Not having to worry about where to stay or how to pay for lodging allows guests to focus on getting better.
Hope Lodge provides a nurturing, home-like environment where guests can retreat to private rooms or connect with others.
"Nice is proud to partner and support in the health of our community, through the best of times in their wellness journeys and through the hardest challenges to their health," said Nice Healthcare Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer Genevieve Swenson, FNP-C. "Partnering with the Minnesota Vikings to support Hope Lodge as it strives to remove barriers and offer much needed emotional and financial support for cancer patients and their families is a true honor."
Vikings & Mystic Lake to host Crucial Catch reception
The Vikings are partnering with Mystic Lake and American Cancer Society Thursday night to host cancer survivors and their families to a special reception.
Held at the Mystic Lake Casino Hotel, the event will revolve around honoring cancer survivors through a fun night of free food, drinks, live music from Dam Jammers and Vikings Legends appearances. In addition to guests invited through ACS, Vikings staff members impacted by cancer also will be in attendance.
Vikings Legends scheduled to appear include Ben Williams, Rickey Young, Leo Lewis and Stu Voigt.