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Shooting to benefit Crohn’s Disease research

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Harrison Gillman has never been one to seek attention. Although he is not shy about talking about his battle with Crohn’s Disease, he doesn’t enjoy the spotlight. That’s why it was tough for him in 2013 when his older brother, Jagger, and cousin, Ethan, organized a fundraiser in his name to raise money for research at the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation.

Although it started out as a basketball clinic, the fundraiser quickly became a three-on-three basketball tournament called Hoops for Harrison, and it will celebrate its sixth iteration on Jan. 19 at North Shore High School. This is the first time the school will be hosting the event, as it had taken place at the Sid Jacobson JCC every year before, although it was canceled last year. This works out perfectly considering Harrison, 17, will graduate from NSHS in June.

Harrison, of Glen Gead, was diagnosed with Crohn’s when he was seven and it has affected his life every day since. He described it as an invisible inflammatory bowel disease that heavily restricts his diet and can cause abdominal pain, fatigue and weight loss. As much struggle it has brought into his life, though, he knows that he would not be the person he is today without Crohn’s.

“It’s shaped me to be who I am,” Harrison said. “I’ve become more of a compassionate person because of it. I have seen so many people in the same situation. I’ve been to many hospitals and doctors and all around I see sick kids just like me, and I realized it’s not just me, I’m not alone.”

However, that development as a person didn’t take away from the difficulties that Harrison has endured throughout his life, especially as a child. Crohn’s often forced him to stop engaging in some of the activities he enjoyed the most, including sports. Jagger, who is three years older and the more extroverted of the two, was saddened to see his brother so restricted, so he and Ethan decided to take action. Given the family’s passion and expertise for basketball, which was heavily influenced by their father, Eric, they knew something related to the sport was the way to go.

“Me and Ethan realized we had to make a difference somehow,” he said. “We took our passion for basketball and my dad’s knowledge of how to run clinics that we’ve going to for years, and we just decided to start off as a clinic and move onto a three-on-three basketball tournament.”

The Gillmans have also hosted several walks in Harrison’s honor to raise money for Crohn’s research. According to Eric, the family has raised almost $100,000 over the past eight years through the walks and Hoops for Harrison.

Suzanne Beck, director of the Long Island chapter of Take Steps for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, has helped the Gillmans organize all of their fundraisers. She said she has watched Harrison grow from a shy seven-year-old to a young man with a passion for giving back. She said fundraisers like Hoops 4 Harrison are pivotal in raising awareness for the foundation, making it just as important an event as any.

“We wouldn’t be able to be out in the community without volunteers like the Gillman family,” Beck said.

As supportive as his brother, father and community have been over the years, perhaps no one cheers louder for Harrison than his mother, Rachel. She has been by his side all his life, making sure he stays healthy, gets the treatment he needs and, much to her teenage son’s dismay, constantly reminds him to take his medication. She has been a part of the fundraiser from the beginning, and said she is proud of her boys for taking the lead.

Rachel is also truly grateful for the generosity the North Shore community has shown throughout the last decade. “The support has been heartwarming,” she said. “A lot of people go above and beyond…they’ve always been there for him. For me, to watch that and see them all come together for these kinds of events and walks, even though they may not be in the same social groups, it’s a heartwarming thing to me.”

This year’s Hoops for Harrison tournament will consist of two separate tournaments based on age, with one being for ninth through 11th-graders and the other for high school seniors and adults. There will also be raffles and a silent auction where guests can win a variety of sports-themed prizes.

Dr. Peter Giarrizzo, North Shore Superintendent of Schools, said he is excited to see the district host a fundraiser like Hoops for Harrison, especially since this is Harrison’s last year at NSHS. He said it is important for educators to help students come around a cause and teach them civic responsibility, something which hosting these types of events promotes.

“Whenever we can lend our voices to issues that are important to us,” Giarrizzo said, “we should be empowering that in kids.”

Harrison will attend Northeastern University in the fall and plans to study psychology. He has spent much of his teenage years speaking to children with Crohn’s and helping them through the hardships the disease presents. As a psychologist, he wants to continue doing such work.

“It’s great to be in a position to be able to help kids like that,” Harrison said, “because when I was younger, I had a good support system, and to help them through this situation is a great feeling.”