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Pagosa Springs man’s nonprofit wins NASCAR $100,000 award

Who We Play For, cofounded by Ralph Maccarone, won the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award
From left to right, Ralph Maccarone, his daughter Jaime, his wife Valerie, and Stacy Cartechine pose with the $100,000 check awarded to the organization Ralph co-founded in 2012 in memory of his son, Rafe. Cartechine also lost her son to sudden cardiac arrest. (Courtesy of NASCAR Foundation)

Ralph Maccarone almost did not fly to Florida for the NASCAR Foundation’s announcement of the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award. Who We Play For, the nonprofit of which Maccarone is the chairman, was in a four-way contest for the award, which was decided by an online popular vote of NASCAR fans nationwide. And his organization was up against the Jay Fund, a nonprofit run by former NFL coach Tom Coughlin.

“We had pretty much resigned ourselves that they were going to win,” Maccarone said.

And so it was a surprise, he said, when the Chair and President of NASCAR Foundation Mike Helton announced on a livestream Thursday that Who We Play For had won the $100,000 award.

The award recognizes a NASCAR fan who volunteers for children’s causes in their racing communities.

Maccarone co-founded Who We Play For in 2012 with friends of his son, Rafe. Rafe collapsed during warm-ups with his soccer team in 2007. He had suffered a sudden cardiac arrest, and died a day later at the age of 15.

Rafe Maccarone collapsed while warming up with his soccer team in 2007 and died of sudden cardiac arrest. (Courtesy of NASCAR Foundation)

In the years after Rafe’s passing, Maccarone and his son’s friends founded an organization to conduct fast, noninvasive heart screenings in schools to catch heart abnormalities that could lead to sudden cardiac arrest. Since 2012, the organization has conducted over 200,000 screenings and caught 200 heart abnormalities.

The organization is based in Cocoa Beach, Florida, although Maccarone lives in Pagosa Springs. He said the organization is partnered with school districts in 16 counties in Florida, meaning there is mandated screening for about 30% of students in the state. Maccarone said the organization has started to conduct screenings in Southwest Colorado, and is hoping to do more once he retires next year and pours more time into the organization.

Who We Play For screens rising high school freshmen in Pagosa Springs each year, and Maccarone said it conducts between 100 and 125 screenings each year. The organization held its first screening at Fort Lewis College last year, where it conducted about 55 tests.

Maccarone said the money from the award will go toward expanding access to testing and starting a fund for students who are found to have abnormalities and require expensive follow-up care.

“We've always kind of operated on a shoestring budget, looking for private donations from individuals,” Maccarone said. He also noted the Florida hospitals have been a reliable partner.

The organization’s tax filings show just $370,000 in revenue in 2019.

Maccarone said he was nominated for the award in March without his knowledge.

He first became aware of the prize two years ago, when Who We Play For screened over 1,000 kids at an event at the Daytona International Speedway.

A student is screened for heart abnormalities that could lead to sudden cardiac arrest by Who We Play For volunteers. (Courtesy of NASCAR Foundation)

Several rounds of interviews followed the nomination to narrow the approximately 100 applicants down to four finalists.Then, several weeks of online voting decided the winner. Members of the Who We Play For team attended sporting events in Florida as well as Colorado with QR codes, asking people to vote for the organization.

“I was definitely nervous,” Maccarone said.

NASCAR did not release a breakdown of the votes, but said that more than 20,000 votes were cast nationwide.

“This simple five-minute test can save a student's life,” Maccarone said. “That to me is first and foremost.”


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