May 3, 2023

Categories: Legends Magazine, Lifestyle

In 2012, tight end Greg Olsen was traded from the Chicago Bears to the Carolina Panthers. Olsen and his wife, Kara, arrived in Charlotte just as they found out she was pregnant with twins.

“Our world was turned upside down the off season of 2012,” remembers Olsen. “Shortly thereafter, we found out that our son, TJ, would be born with a critical congenital heart defect.” TJ had hypoplastic left heart syndrome, and the left side of his heart hadn’t developed properly in vitro and was subverting the flow of blood. The Olsen’s world was thrown into chaos. The doctors at Levine Children’s Hospital operated days after Kara gave birth, and by TJ’s second birthday, he had undergone three major surgeries.

The most difficult part of the experience, the Olsens found, was coming home from the hospital each time. “When a child is discharged from the hospital, it’s wonderful,” he says. “But now all of a sudden it is real. You no longer have doctors and nurses and specialists taking care of your child around the clock. And it’s very scary.”

Moved by this experience, Kara and Greg founded The HEARTest Yard, a charity dedicated to children born with congenital heart defects and, at the outset, particularly focused on funding in-home care after children are released from the hospital. Levine Children’s Hospital, where TJ underwent his critical surgeries, became their proving ground. Ten years later, they have donated over five million dollars to the children’s hospital and helped build a state-of-the-art pediatric cardiology center.

The Olsens recently completed a house on Kiawah Island and partnering with MUSC in Charleston was an obvious next step. MUSC boasts one of the largest pediatric cardiac units in South Carolina and recently partnered with Kiawah Island to build the new MUSC Health Sea Islands Medical Pavilion. The union of the three—South Street Partners (Kiawah Island), MUSC, and The HEARTest Yard—made sense.

Olsen stands on a stage in the River Course ballroom, speaking to a packed house. Tonight is the first annual HEARTest Yard fundraising event in partnership with South Street Partners. The Olsens and their team hope to raise enough money to kickstart an in-home nursing program at MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital. Tonight’s event features a silent and live auction, dinner, and a series of musical performers. Tomorrow will mark the first annual HEARTest Yard golf tournament at the River Course.

“We continue to think larger and larger,” says Olsen into the microphone. “How do we continue to grow and improve our impact on more families in a larger region? And of course, we were recently given a new motivation. Yesterday marks the one year anniversary of TJ’s heart transplant. He’s here tonight. TJ put your hand up.”

TJ, a lanky, sandy-haired kid of twelve, stands, and the room erupts into applause and whistling. “This is our motivation to continue to grow The HEARTest Yard, not only regional programs but also one day to a national brand,” says Olsen. “And MUSC is step two in that process.” Every dollar raised tonight will go directly to the Shawn Jenkins pediatric cardiology unit. Though MUSC will use the money raised for various smaller initiatives, the vast majority will fund the at-home nursing program, an average of $4,400 paying for one hundred hours of nursing.

Rather poetically, Olsen concludes his speech with the big picture. “This is not the Olsen story. There are a lot of families out there who have a story like TJ. This is a community, a collective group of people who share a very similar journey to us.” On that note he welcomes Dr. Eric Graham to the stage. Dr. Graham is a professor of pediatrics and Children’s Heart Program chair at MUSC. Olsen’s speech and the purpose for the event have moved Dr. Graham. He begins by commending the Olsens and the HEARTest Yard team for their work in Charlotte. “Heart disease remains the number one cause of death in children with birth defects in the United States,” he says. “And these children and their families still go through enormous physical, emotional, and financial stress and hardships. We must do better.”

Dr. Graham goes on to tell the story of a local family, the Smiths, who lost their baby girl to the same congenital heart defect as TJ’s. The Smith family, like the Olsens, wanted to make a difference in pediatric cardiology, and their gift to MUSC helped form an emergency response system. And since then, in over seven years, they have yet to lose a child to a congenital heart defect. The point, everyone realizes, is that programs like this work. Donations to these institutions, which are so often stretched thin, can make a dramatic difference. The audience, for the duration of Dr. Graham’s story, has been transported to the despair, trauma, and fear of both the Olsen and the Smith’s experiences.

The rest of the evening is a whirlwind. The live auction gets a bit rowdy as the stakes get higher, and there is a considerable amount of good-natured goading between guests. Will Culp, of South Street Partners, adds golf and accommodation packages as the bidding gets higher. There is an electricity in the room. “This is above and beyond,” says Molly Ansbro, executive director of the Olsen’s parent foundation R2R: The Greg Olsen Foundation. “We’ve never done anything at this scale before, and South Street Partners has been such an incredible partner.” Later, Mark Bryan of Hootie and the Blowfish, Thomas McClary of the Commodores, Ryan Cabrera, and a myriad of others play in fifteen-minute increments, a revolving door of musical guests.

The next day, the River Course is brilliant green in the early summer sunshine. Olsen zips around the course in flip-flops all morning, ribbing golfers and keeping things moving. After the tournament finish, everyone gathers at the clubhouse for cocktails and an award ceremony. Olsen and his team hand out various “trophies” to the winners—a guitar signed by Thomas McClary, football helmets signed by Olsen as well as NFL players Jonathan Stewart and Luke Kuechly.

In total, the HEARTest yard raised over $300,000 this weekend. And really this is just the beginning. As the organization grows, so too do the events, the opportunities to get involved. Currently, the HEARTest Yard hosts five large events throughout the year in addition to fundraising through private donors and corporate sponsorships. As the program grows at MUSC, the team hopes to increase fundraising in the Lowcountry.

The 2023 HEARTest Yard Celebrity Classic at Kiawah Island will take place June 11-12. Contact Executive Director Molly Ansbro at for event information and sponsorship opportunities.