Dream Team all-stars and scholarship winners highlight Gator Bowl holiday party

Members of the Gator Bowl Dream Team all-stars are introduced during the Gator Bowl Holiday Party Thursday, December 9 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Jacksonville. (Cole Pepper, 2021 WJXT)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Representatives from both Texas A&M and Wake Forest were in town Thursday to accept the official invitation to play in the Taxslayer Gator Bowl on News Year’s Eve morning. But the real hit of the Gators Bowl’s annual Holiday Party came from two groups of kids.

The Gator bowl presented four scholarships, worth $2,500 each, to Caleb Moncrief of Keystone Heights, Kyra Brenneman from Creekside. Bishop Kenny’s Natalie Otero and Evan Fleischer of Ponte Vedra for academics, athletics, and community involvement.

They also introduced twelve Dream Team All-Stars. Each year, partnering with Dreams Come True, the Gator Bowl selects a dozen kids battling life-threatening illnesses. This year, 12 past Dream Team members were chosen as Dream Team All-Stars.

“It’s real fun because I got to meet all of these other people who went through hard times, just (like) me,” said Andrew Eunis. “We get to go tailgating and then go into the stadium and watch the game.”

Smiling ear to ear while sitting in his wheelchair, Jacob Lopez said his first time on the Dream Team offered him a chance to bond with other kids in his situation, including his best friend, with whom he strengthened a bond on the Dream Team.

“I like meeting people with life-threatening illnesses and I love meeting new people with similarities to me,” said Lopez.

This year on the Dream Team all-stars offed Joshua Ribeiro a chance to be more involved than he was able to the first time he was selected.

“The first time I joined the Dream Team, I had no idea what to expect. I was going through a lot of chemo treatments, so I was able to be at some of the events, and I wasn’t able to (some of the time) and I was able to meet a bunch of amazing people,” Ribeiro said. “And it was an absolutely amazing experience to get outside of treatment, but also talk to people who were going through what I was going through.”

The kids all beamed about the experience, as did Dreams Come True executive director Sheri Criswell, who said the program has made a big difference for the kids in the program.

“It’s an incredible experience. Not only do they get to feel the love from the people in the Gator Bowl, they get to experience the game and have a little fun and a reprieve from their daily activities of dealing with a life-threatening illness,” Criswell said.

The game is often the headline grabber, but in truth, what the Gator Bowl does in the community leaves a much larger and lasting impression.

“That’s what it’s all about,” said Gator Bowl president Greg McGarrity. “Our role is to do great things for Jacksonville. That not only means putting on a great game and putting heads in bed. But it’s also paying attention to the needs of the community. We’re just so proud to be affiliated with so many wonderful people. This is a big, big deal for these kids.”

Tickets for the Taxslayer Gator Bowl are on sale via the games’ website.