By Kim Constantinesco
While sports generally require a team effort, there are cases in which the addition of a single individual, a bench player in fact, can make all the difference in the world.
Tufts Women’s Basketball team had not won a single postseason game in school history until they signed Shannon Curley in 2013. Curley, a 12-year-old from Billerica, MA, is an acute lymphoblastic leukemia survivor. After Tufts “drafted” Curley and made her part of the team, they advanced to the NCAA division championships at their level.
Tufts wasn’t the only college team whose performance improved with the signing of an ill child.
The TCU baseball team advanced to the College World Series this year with 5-year-old Micah Ahern by their side. Ahern was diagnosed with stage IV neuroblastoma at three years old.
“He came in and lifted the spirits of all the men,” Team IMPACT executive director Duke Little said. “They’d look down the bench after a strikeout and look at Micah after he came back from treatment and were like, ‘My world is not a problem. My world is just fine as it is. I don’t need to worry about that strikeout.'”
TCU won their first College World Series game in 11 innings. The second game, they won in 22 innings.
“What we’ve found is that the children are providing more motivation and more life perspective for the student athletes than we could have imagined,” Little said. “The coaches are loving it just for a number of things. We’ve heard collectively that morale is better, wins are up, the experience overall is better from the student athletes to the coaches.”
Team IMPACT X’s and O’s
Team IMPACT stands for Inspire, Motivate, and Play Against Challenges Together.
Since May 2011, over 510 chronically ill kids who are facing life-threatening challenges have been placed on 250 college and university teams in 39 states.
“The whole mission of our group is to provide support through the power of the team,” Little said. “Many of these kids really can’t participate in team sports. They’re either not around enough to be consistent, or physically they just can’t do it.”
Back in 1960, football players from Middlebury College initiated “Picking Up Butch” which is a longstanding tradition in which athletes pick up Butch Varno, a local resident with cerebral palsy, and bring him to sporting events at the school.
Since then, college teams have “adopted” various children and made them part of the team to improve the quality of their lives. A nice secondary effect is that just as much as the children benefit, the student-athletes receive lessons about courage and resiliency that they can’t learn on the field of play or in the classroom. They also get extremely attached to their youngest teammate.
A letter from the mother of Brady, a Team IMPACT draftee:
I wanted to let you all know at Team IMPACT after we let Brady’s team know today, that the decision was made yesterday by his medical team to begin IVIG infusion treatments for his immune deficiency. His immune system is simply not holding its own any more.
The treatments will be every 3 weeks for the next year and a half to start. His first will be at Boston Children’s Waltham on Monday.
We thought we had seen it all with the soccer team but when we told them tonight, it took Team IMPACT to a whole new level. 28 soccer players who don’t necessarily understand all of Brady’s medical issues were crushed. Suddenly it seemed like more than ever, they had something to play for this season.
From Draft Day all the way to “Graduation,” each Team IMPACT child participates in various team activities from sitting on the bench during games to participating in practice to making good use of study hall time.
The driving force that makes the relationship so successful for the child is the fact that the organization places a heavy emphasis on goal setting.
“We sit down with moms and dads at the beginning and we ask for a particular goal,” Little said. “We try to identify what they’d like to get out of the program rather than just have it happen by chance.”
For example, a chronically ill child can easily become disengaged from his or her peer group because of frequent hospitalizations and time missed from school. That’s when a teammate might call that child and encourage him or her to reach out to a classmate and extend an invitation for a play date.
“Other goals could be academic in nature,” Little said. “If a child is looking at school from the perspective of ‘I’m not going to make it. I’ve got cancer. Why do I need to need to study,’ then maybe the student athletes will encourage their kid to come to study hall. At the monthly or quarterly times when they have to submit their grades to their coach, so does the Team IMPACT kid. It gives them a reason to be one of the guys or one of the girls, a reason to study because they don’t want to look bad in front of their coach or in front of their teammates.”
Children are with their teams for at least two years, but as the child reaches goals and desired outcomes, he or she will graduate from the program.
Structure is Team IMPACT’s Bread and Butter
Team IMPACT has a very structured methodology to their relationships. Each team has a case manager to make sure that all promises made to parents get delivered, and to make sure every team is properly trained for the relationship.
“We talk to players and coaches about the sensitivities of the various medical conditions that are out there,” Little said. “We talk about the do’s and don’ts, things to say, and things not to say.”
The organization mandates a certain number and types of engagement with each child. That means that during the season, the off season, and the summer, these children are receiving in-person visits, phone calls, texts, emails, videos, Facebook messages, and even “shout outs” on Twitter.
Here’s an example of one ‘Welcome’ letter to a 5-year-old child named Declan, who was diagnosed at 2 years old with an inoperable brain tumor that has impacted his optic nerve.
My name is Randall Kelleher, and I am a senior on the Framingham State football team. I wear number 87 and play wide receiver. This December I will be graduating and will have to go find a big boy job.
Like everyone else on the team will tell you, we are excited to have you and can’t wait to meet you! I can assure you, you will have no issues getting along with anyone if you enjoy food as much as we do, youl fit in just fine. Enjoy the new baby brother! See you soon!
Your new teammate,
Team IMPACT touts social, emotional, physical, and academic benefits through the relationships that they help foster, but the high degree to which a child benefits is always an amazing thing to watch.
“We had one little boy who suffered burns on 98% of his body,” Little said. “He’s with the University of Indianapolis baseball team. He had to have physical therapy every day to be stretched and massaged, and it’s not really fun for him because it hurts. When he’s able to go to practice and he sits down and stretches with his teammates, it doesn’t hurt as much, and he’s able to do it for a longer period of time because he’s trying to fit in with his teammates.”
Parents reap the benefits as well.
“We have children who are on the sideline during a game and they’re literally part of the team,” Little said. “The parents are for it because they never thought it was something their child could participate in. It’s something where they never thought they would be a ‘soccer mom’ or a ‘softball dad.’ Parents see their child smile and jump up and down when a goal is scored.”
The Future of Team IMPACT
Considering how well these children are doing with their teams, one would think that Team IMPACT would want to expand to the professional level.
“The sweet spot for this organization is the 18-23-year-old student athlete,” Little said. “When you get into the pro level, it’s defined as a job. As with the NFL, their media exposure is not what we want our kids to be exposed to.”
If the organization gets maxed out on college teams or they want to grow more, there has been talk about expanding the program to having a local firehouses and police department adopt children for 2-3 year commitments.
The goal right now, however, is to get a child onto all of the roughly 18,000 college sports teams in this country.
There may not be an ‘I’ in team, but there is an ‘I’ in ‘IMPACT.’
It’s an ‘I’ that’s bigger than any win in any competition, and it comes straight from the bench.