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Hope goes on 'Love Endures' as Kellys welcome area families at first birthday observance since Hunter's death

Tuesday marked the ninth annual observance of "Hunter's Day of Hope for Children" by former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly and his wife, Jill.

The first such event since the death of its namesake carried on with the message "Love Endures."

The Ralph Wilson Field House in Orchard Park opened its doors for the event, at which the Kellys -- joined by daughters Erin and Camryn -- urged parents to cherish their children.

Hunter James Kelly, who shared a Valentine's Day birthday with his father, died Aug. 5 of Krabbe disease, a rare degenerative condition that destroys the brain's white matter.

Hunter's Hope Foundation, established by the Kellys after Hunter was diagnosed in 1997, has raised public awareness, as well as millions of dollars for research, into Krabbe and other leukodystrophies.

"It's very humbling that you're all here," Jill Kelly told the hundreds of people gathered. "We can't express the emotions that we are going through today."

"This is a day about all children," she said, seeming to struggle to maintain her composure.

A display featuring several large black-and-white photographs of Hunter, some with family and friends, hung against black drapes inside the entrance to the field house. Several were accompanied by messages from those pictured with Hunter.

"There are four horses, 23 cows, 111 American flags and about 17,000 trees between my house and Hunter's angel. Hunter was the best friend I ever had," said Hunter's best friend, Robert Sands.

While most of the youngsters at the festivities headed straight for the amusements behind the display, their parents and grandparents walked slowly among the photographs, studying the images and reading the messages.

"You almost feel guilty bringing your 8-year-old here," said Marie Whalen of Hamburg. She was there with her son, Alex, who plays football for the CSRA Cougars in the newly named Hunter James Kelly Youth Football and Cheerleading Association.

It was the first time Whalen had attended "Hunter's Day of Hope for Children."

"Up until this point I always thought it was more personal," Whalen said, explaining that when the event was held at Chestnut Ridge Park, she felt she would be a "nosy" outsider.

The amusements and entertainment were all about children, including several football-related games, face-painting and young performers on stage.

The Kellys took the stage between performances.

Jim Kelly, who hails from a family of six sons, recalled the hopes and dreams he had for his only son. He talked about taking Jill to the hospital to give birth on Valentine's Day 1997.

"From that day on, I dreamt what every daddy dreams about," he said -- things like tossing a ball, hunting and fishing. "But the good lord had other plans for me. He decided he was going to give me a special boy."

In simple terms, he told the children how the disease limited his son's movement.

He told parents: "Realize how important your own kids are. Cherish every single day that you have with your son or daughter."

Earlier Tuesday, Jim and Jill Kelly visited Hunter's grave, where they placed a heart-shaped balloon and built a special snowman for their son. Then, they released other balloons that floated unobstructed through the trees, Jim Kelly said. "Right to heaven, right to Hunter."


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