EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. –Joe Berger has dedicated his career as an offensive lineman to ensuring the safety of his quarterback.
But off the field, Berger is also an advocate for safety and security in the form of providing children with a family by the means of adoption and foster care. Berger and his wife, Abby, have adopted two of their four children, and Berger has been a regular participant in the Vikings Adoption Fun Fest.
"It's just important to our family. Obviously adoption's affected us directly … and it's just been such a blessing to us," Berger said. "And any way we can, we just want to reach out to people and [build] awareness for it."
The annual event, hosted by Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and Executive Vice President of Football Operations Rob Brzezinski, was held in the field house at Winter Park. More than 500 people attended the evening that offered fun for the whole family.
"It's just a fun event, you know? This is an event that Rick and Rob put together to just get families together and enjoy being in the atmosphere – just hanging out together, it's almost like a family picnic in the summer," Berger said. "You're just here to have fun. It's a wonderful event."
Youth of all ages ran through the field house, dodging around brightly colored cones and tossing miniature Vikings footballs. They were able to play in large, football-themed inflatables, stop at a face-painting or balloon-animal station, and dress up with an assortment of props at a photo booth. Organized locker-room tours also were given to groups throughout the night.
Attendees had the chance to meet Spielman, Brzezinski, Berger and other current and former Vikings. Berger was joined by teammates Mike Remmers, Jeremiah Sirles, David Morgan, Kentrell Brothers, Cedric Lang and Cornelius Edison. Vikings Legends on hand were Dave Osborn, Rickey Young, Tuineau Alipate, Brian Williams and Ryan Hoag.
Sirles said he was grateful for the opportunity to again promote adoption and support Berger, who has become a mentor and friend for the younger lineman.
"It's a really fun event to come out here and spend some time with the kids and see everyone," Sirles said. "You see some of the same faces as last year, and you get to see these kids kind of grow up, and it's really fun.
"Joe's been a huge mentor for me. Ever since I've been here he's been nothing but helpful, and his family's the same way," Sirles added. "My wife and I actually went and visited him and his family up in Michigan this year and got to see where he lives … and his kids running around. I'm pretty sure we played every sport imaginable – basketball, baseball, football, kickball – all in the matter of like three hours. Joe's just been a great guy for me, and he's someone that I'm going to hopefully stay in touch with for the rest of my life."
Viktor the Viking and Minnesota Vikings Cheerleaders Chelsea, Bridget, Parey and Kelley also joined in the festivities.
The evening held a special meaning for Kelley, whose husband's parents recently took the step to legally adopt three siblings, ages 3, 4 and 7. The arrangement was initially temporary, but Kelley's in-laws were then approached by the State and asked if they would consider adoption. Otherwise, the siblings would be re-entered into the foster care system.
"Ryan's parents prayed about it, and it just ended up being the perfect thing for their family. Just this past April they adopted all three of them, and it's so amazing," said Kelley, who added that she and Ryan have talked about eventually pursuing adoption themselves.
"It's amazing to talk to the kids and the families here," Kelley said. "I've talked to three different families, and their stories are so different, but all of them have said, 'I wouldn't be who I am without this child, or these children.' "
In addition to the Vikings representation, EVOLVE Adoption & Family Services and Children's Home Society & Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota both were on-site to connect with families, share information and answer questions about the process.
Partway through the evening, guests gathered on the field for a brief message from Spielman and Brzezinski, who have adopted six and five children, respectively. Spielman introduced his second-oldest son, Luis, who was adopted into the Spielman family at age 15. Luis, who now has children of his own, shared the way that his life was changed through the Spielmans' decision to grow their family through adoption.
Spielman echoed Luis' sentiments.
"When we found out that we couldn't have children and [with] how important family was to us, [we decided to go] through the adoption process," Spielman said. "Everybody talks about, 'What a great thing you did, adopting your family,' and we look at it more the opposite – that we got a family because of adoption, and it brought us so much more joy than we could ever give our kids back."
Brzezinski, who was joined by three of his children at the Fun Fest, emphasized the personal significance of the annual event.
"I think the message that my wife and I really like to get out there is that even if you have biological children, adoption could be an option for you," Brzezinski said. "It's a blessing and a major part of our lives, and we want to share it and celebrate it."
Spielman and Brzezinski were presented with a donation of $15,000 to the Minnesota Vikings Foundation from Sheriff's Youth Project of Le Sueur County.
Le Sueur County Sheriff Brett Mason said that the program has built a relationship with the Vikings over the past several years and was impressed by the Adoption Fun Fest. The program each year chooses to donate to a specific nonprofit, and Mason said it was an honor to contribute to the Vikings Foundation in support of the Adoption Fest.
"Myself as a Sheriff and a law enforcement official, I see a lot of things that go on each and every day with child protection – not just in my county but throughout the surrounding counties. A lot of these children need to get better homes," Mason said. "This adoption fest is just a small part of it, but [it all makes] a huge impact on these children's lives."