When the Hoops Family Children’s Hospital opened its indoor playroom in the summer of 2022, thanks to money raised by the West Virginia Hot Dog Festival, it accentuated the importance of this annual event to the Tri-State Area.
“Every single year it means more and more to have a successful festival and raise money for Hoops,” says former iHeart Media marketing whiz Kym York-Blake, who helped organize the first festival with John Mandt Jr. of Stewart’s Original Hot Dogs.
“It’s a win-win-win for the community, the Children’s Hospital and Pullman Square,” adds Michelle Adkins, general manager of the shopping and entertainment complex. “We get a lot of positive feedback from our tenants, who appreciate people coming out and supporting them. It not only benefits Pullman Square, but businesses surrounding us.”
Mandt, who originally designed the festival to benefit the pediatric oncology department at Cabell Huntington Hospital, thinks it has taken on new significance because of Hoops’ continuing growth. “There’s more unity with Hoops in our area during an important, critical time and an uncertain time when a family has a child there,” says Mandt, the fourth-generation family member to operate Stewart’s. “That wasn’t around in the 1960s. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if we had had a facility like that back then.”
Mandt’s reference was to the painful experience his family endured in his childhood. In 1965, three years after his birth, his younger sister died of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Not long after, his 16-month-old brother, Stephen, died of a brain tumor.
Kristy Arrowood, director of foundations for Mountain Health Foundations, recalls the poignant scene touring the Children’s Hospital with John Mandt Sr., John Jr. and bakery owner Earl Heiner Jr. after it opened. As the three reminisced about that painful night in 1968, John Sr. recalled phoning Earl to say, “We lost Stephen; how do I tell John Jr. we lost his brother?”
“To see the community, businesses and restaurants that come down for the day to celebrate one of West Virginia’s most popular meals … the impact is immeasurable,” Arrowood says. “Those funds come directly to Hoops and make an immediate impact, whether that is purchasing equipment, helping the oncology department, or improving the Cranial Facial Center. Those funds are helping us change lives and save lives.”
For Mandt, the presence of the Children’s Hospital becomes more meaningful with each passing year. He readily consented to expanding the Hot Dog Festival’s scope from one department to the entire Children’s Hospital after it opened in 2015. He cites the great experiences families have, the comfort it provides, and the ability of parents to stay at home and rotate watch duties when their child is hospitalized as some of the value Hoops adds to the community.
“A lot of people come from out of our area because of its success and the care their kids receive there,” Mandt says. “We draw people from all over the region. That’s been cool. The staff is phenomenal. They’re locked in and in step with the children. They’re not just patients; they become like family. That’s important for children who are young and scared to go to a hospital.”
Given the often-temporary nature of volunteer-led community events, the fact the Hot Dog Festival endures is notable, something York-Blake attributes to the Children’s Hospital’s continuing growth.
“Having Hoops expanding to treating all life-threatening diseases shows we have a need,” she says. “Huntington has always been a health care hub; when people in our region have a need they’re referred to Huntington.
“It shows what we’re doing is needed. Our funds have helped create the playroom and a media room. When the kids are bored they can come and play or watch a movie with their parents. That has given them a little more normalcy.”
Granted, while the play room opened as a place for kids to have fun, it has a serious side too. That’s because Hoops’ Child Life Department meets pediatric patients’ social, emotional and physical needs while they are in the hospital.
“We bring a lot of things to children using play,” Child Life Specialist Abbi Watts told the Herald-Dispatch newspaper recently. “That way they can have that control and autonomy in an environment where they have very limited choices and explore their way through it.”
“Child Life reduces stress and anxiety for children in the hospital,” wrote H-D reporter Amanda Larch. “Specialists teach them tools to cope with the fear and separation stemming from their time in the hospital. They build resilience through creativity and play.”
Said Child Life Specialist Stephanie Cape: “Our goal is to help them be able to cope better, just in general, with everything.”
Even though festival funds helped build the play room, Mandt says he doesn’t put any strings on the money given to the Children’s Hospital. He relies on administrators and staff members to allocate the funds where needed.
“They’re not complacent,” says Mandt, a Cabell County commissioner in addition to his business duties. “They’re always looking to make it better and keep up to date with equipment and our times and the kind of care they can give.
“It’s like a business. You can’t be complacent where you are. Every role you have as a person you should want to be better. It’s the same with Hoops. I’m watching it grow with technology and world class doctors, research and exploration.”
As the father (and stepfather) of six and an expectant grandfather, Mandt finds comfort from knowing that if any dangerous scenarios with family members arise in the future, he won’t have to worry about a repeat of his childhood experience.
A similar passion drives York-Blake’s affinity for the annual event. Although she retired from iHeart Media in April of 2023, she remains active with the Hot Dog Festival.
“John had a brilliant idea and I’m glad I got to be the coordinator,” Kym says. “I hope someday we celebrate our 50th festival. I’ll be long gone by then, but there will still be a need and we’ll still be able to bring people downtown, celebrate hot dogs, and raise money for Hoops.”