Memories of her son surrounded Janine Koehler as she stood on the grass at Heckscher State Park in East Islip on Saturday.
Between the large photos and banner with his face, more than a dozen fields stretched out, filled with teams of young players ready to compete in the 7th annual Christian Koehler Lacrosse Tournament.
“There no doubt in my mind he’s in heaven and he’s beaming,” Koehler, 40, said.
Saturday’s tournament marked seven years since Christian died from brain cancer. About 100 teams from across the Island and out of state converged to compete in his memory.
Participants ranged from second to eighth grade, and there were divisions for boys and girls teams, which came from as far as Maryland.
“It’s an opportunity for us to keep our son’s memory alive,” said Chris Koehler, 44, Christian’s father. “Every year you’re stressing whether you got everything and it just seems to work out.”
Lacrosse was Christian’s favorite sport, and he wore number 16 on the field, his parents said. He always said he wanted to play lacrosse or football professionally.
The athletic young boy was struck with a headache in May 2008 and quickly became incoherent. Doctors told his parents that it was stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive brain cancer. He died May 29, 2009, just over a year after his diagnosis. He was 10.
Shortly after his death, the family used their contacts in the local lacrosse community to hold the first tournament. Chris had played with and coached a number of East Islip teams and Christian’s siblings also are fans of the game their brother loved.
“We thought you know what let’s do something in memory of him,” Janine Koehler said as daughter Allison, 13, warmed up to play and son Anthony, 12, headed onto the field with his team.
Dawn O’Halloran, Christian’s aunt and one of the tournament organizers, said the tournament raised money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which provided Christian’s family with a trip to Turks and Caicos during his treatment, and the Children’s Brain Tumor Project, founded by the doctor at Weill Cornell Medical Center who treated Christian.
It was unclear how much this year’s tournament raised, but O’Halloran said with the increase in teams over last year, the family thought they surpassed last year’s total of more than $40,000.
That is enough to fully pay for another child’s wish, said Kellie Ryan, community relations manager for Make-A-Wish Suffolk County. A 9-year-old Bay Shore boy named Jose and his family will head to Disney World in August, all expenses paid by the Christian Koehler Foundation’s 2016 tournament.
Chris Koehler said he’s proud to return the favor for the organizations that helped him and his son.
“It’s an opportunity to promote his memory and that’s the sole backbone, the defining reason I do it,” he said. “There’s a platform and an opportunity to raise money for charities; we try to raise awareness.”