BOSTON HERALD: "Team Impact a two-way street for kids, athletes"

The women's basketball team held a birthday/halloween party for Lexi Simoes, who has been part of the Skyhawks team for a year.

College programs adopt kids who need boost, get boost in return

BY Stephen Harris
Boston Herald

More than a half-century ago, Middlebury College established a tradition that was far ahead of its time. Today, the wonderful idea born at Middlebury is being embraced on college campuses across the Northeast and the nation.

On a wet winter day in 1960, a Middlebury undergrad named Roger Ralph stopped his car to offer a lift to 14-year-old Butch Varno, who suffered from cerebral palsy and was being pushed in his wheelchair by his grandmother. 

Thus was born the tradition of, “Picking up Butch,” as five decades of Middlbury freshmen have been entrusted with the task of picking up Varno at his home and bringing him to a variety of Panthers games and events.

Over the years, other colleges have developed comparable relationships with deserving youngsters, but now there is a fast-growing organization — Quincy-based Team Impact — bringing together kids battling severe health problems and college teams. 

The children are “drafted’’ by the team and become to the greatest extent possible full-fledged team members — with a spot in the locker room, uniforms and inclusion in games, practices and other team events. The athletes stay closely in touch with the kids via phone or email throughout the season and beyond.

“We often describe ourselves as sort of a fusion between the Make-a-Wish and Big Brothers Big Sisters organizations,” said Dan Walsh, executive director of Team Impact ( [3]). 

“For a little kid who is battling a chronic, life-threatening illness, who faces a lot of isolation and a bunch of challenges physically, socially, psychologically and academically, this gives them a great outlet,” said Walsh.

“For a kid to be part of a college team, where there is camaraderie and support on and off the field, it’s a really big deal. If you’re 8 or 10 years old, and you’re hanging out with a bunch of 20-year-old athletes and you’re not just accepted, you’re embraced as a close friend, that’s a big deal.” 

Some 76 colleges and universities in the Northeast, including the majority of schools in Massachusetts, are involved with Team Impact. At many institutions, several teams have adopted youngsters. The program has been around for just 18 months and has absolutely exploded. Its organizers hope to go national, and bring this opportunity to tens of thousands of deserving kids.

“Our biggest challenge seems to be getting the word out,” said Walsh. “We work closely with the medical community to identify children, and we’re looking to get more public awareness. So if people know of children who’d benefit from the big social and psychological boost of having 20 older brothers or sisters — people who’ll come visit them as they go through treatments and make them part of their team — those are kids we want.” 

Jake Quinn, here with senior captain Dana Borges, has been part of the Stonehill ice hockey team for a year.

Member of the team

Merrimack College’s hockey team added a new member last winter, when 10-year-old Tim Burke of Boston was drafted in time to take part in the team’s “Frozen Fenway” events. He had just begun treatments for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. 

“He needed a way to have some fun again, he needed a way to be with other people and not think about cancer,” said Lisa Scherber, director of patient and family programs at Dana-Farber, in a poignant video available on YouTube titled, “Team Impact: Tim & Merrimack Hockey.”

“Getting involved in this was a no-brainer for us,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. “You hear about this program and you say, ‘Why haven’t we been doing this for decades?’ 

“Right from the get-go, I’ve felt that whatever benefits Timmy is getting, my guys benefit more. (Tim’s mom) Mary and I debate this all the time: I still say our guys get way more out of this than Timmy does.

“I’m very proud of how our guys have welcomed Tim in,” Dennehy said. “To be honest, that was easy. He’s an unbelievable young man. The players say with him it’s just like hanging around with one of their teammates. I get upset when people say he’s an honorary member of our team. He’s not. He’s a full-fledged member of our team.” 

Indeed, check out the MC hockey roster, and you see the line: Tim Burke, defenseman, sophomore, 5-foot-1, 105 pounds, Boston, Mass.

“I’ve gained a teammate and a friend,” said Merrimack captain Jordan Heywood. “A lot of people say, ‘You do so much for him, you help him so much.’ I really don’t feel like that. Tim has just become my teammate and my friend. I would do the same for any one of my friends. 

“Getting to know Tim makes you realize how blessed you are to be able to play the sport you love at the NCAA level. For a lot of these kids, their illness may effect whether they’re able to participate in sports at all. It really puts in perspective how lucky we are.

“With this program, it’s just so cool to see athletes in their late teens or early 20s reach out to these young kids and potentially make the difference between life and death for them.” 

In the YouTube video, Tim Burke is seen in various interactions with the MC team, starting last year at Fenway. “I started to like the team and it took off from there,” Burke said with a wide smile. “It takes so much stress off your recovery and it takes your mind off a lot of things.”

Lasting relationships 

The Stonehill field hockey team welcomed Kassandra Jean-Baptiste to their team this fall.

Future generations of football players at Newton’s Mt. Ida College will partake in a tradition born this year through the Mustangs’ involvement with Team Impact. Twin brothers Josh and Alex Yood, 11, were drafted by the team in July. Josh has complex and severe pulmonary ailments and Alex has mild cerebral palsy.

At their first game, the twins went to mid-field to flip the pregame coin toss. Steve Yood, their dad, had the coin mounted on a green-painted rock. And every Mustangs player touches that rock for good luck before games. 

Josh and Alex certainly brought Mt. Ida good fortune this year, as the team went 8-3, won the Eastern Collegiate Footbal Conference title and earned the school’s first-ever NCAA Div. 3 tournament berth.

“We reflect back on our season, winning a conference championship and getting our first NCAA berth in school history, and when we reflect on the season the best thing we’ve done was to join Josh and Alex’ family,” said Mt. Ida coach Mike Landers. 

“During a football season you work really hard, you’re concentrating on your next opponent. But this gave us time to pause. What was important for us were Alex and Josh. They came to practice every week, we’ve gone to visit them at their house, they came to games. They’re both really interested in football. Josh talks about wanting to be an official, and Alex talks about being a coach.

“I’m am so happy that they came to Mt. Ida College. It’s not a one-season thing. Our kids and our coaches are involved with their family now. It will carry on. We’ll be a part of each other’s lives for a long time.” 

That’s the best part, as far as Steve Yood is concerned.

“With a Make-a-Wish sort of thing, maybe you get to go to Disney World or meet Tom Brady or whatever, and then it’s over,” said Yood. “We want it to last for years. This has been amazing. 

“Josh is the happiest kid you’ll ever meet. And Alex is a totally crazy sports fan. Our kids feel like they’re part of that team, so they have 100 big brothers all the time and they feel completely included.”

All about family 

Stonehill College is one of the area schools most involved with Team Impact, with youngsters on its women’s basketball, field hockey, men’s hockey and men’s basketball teams.

Sharon’s Heidi Simoes is the mom of two youngsters on Stonehill teams, Alexandria (Lexi) on women’s basketball, and 8-year-old Cameryn on men’s hoops. Lexi, 13, suffers from Mitochondrial Disease. 

“It’s been a wonderful social outlet for Alexandria,” said Simoes. “She misses a lot of school because she has been in the hospital a lot. She hasn’t really been able to make a lot of good friends because of the amount of time that she’s missed school in the past.

“So these are the girls she looks up to. They’re like big sisters to her. They accept her. There’s no bullying, there’s no being made fun of. She has a blast. She goes to Stonehill and hangs out with them, they had a birthday party for her, they’ve gone apple picking with her, all sorts of stuff.” 

And Cameryn, too, spends lots of time with the men’s team, shooting baskets, just being around. His spirits and self-confidence have been boosted tremendously, said his mom.

Trish Brown, the Skyhawks women’s hoop coach, has been amazed by Lexi’s spirit. 

“Lexi’s challenges are really a little overwhelming, but to see her interact with our team, she’s phenomenal,” said Brown. “For college kids in general it’s a pretty self-focused time. For them to be able to step out of that little bubble that they’re in and see this young kid who faces challenges every day, it really puts things in perspective for them.

“Lexi says that the girls make her feel so special,” Brown said. “She also said the girls make her forget everything — because they make her laugh so hard all the time. She feels like their little sister.” 

Benefits both ways

Boston University assistant field hockey coach Sarah Shute shares a similar story about 8-year-old Holly, who battles cerebral palsy. She was drafted to join the Terriers in September. 

“I think it’s really beneficial for both sides,” said Shute. “Our girls are so busy most of the time as students and playing field hockey. Whenever they’re with Holly, it gives them the opportunity to take a step back and look at a different perspective on life: Slow down a little and really appreciate what they do have.

“The first time we met her, she was really quiet and hung on to her parents and brother the whole time. Now, every time we see her she opens up a little more. She’s such an awesome little kid. She’s coming out of her shell.” 

Said Holly’s mom, Melissa Christensen: “She feels like she’s part of something, like she belongs to something. She calls them her sorority sisters. She doesn’t really understand what the concept is, but she feels like she’s very special when she’s with them.

“They’re just so sweet to her, so giving and kind. They just make her feel really important. I’m in awe of these players and coaches.” 

Curry College has two teams that have drafted youngsters: Gavin, a 6-year-old from Walpole who suffers from Neurofibromatosis, is now part of the baseball team, and 12-year-old Sean Bennett of Brighton, who is being treated for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, is on the hockey team.

Hockey co-captain Casey Brugman echoes so many of the other athletes when he says, “I think we’re learning more from Sean than he is from us — with everything he’s been through, how tough he is, how energetic and how happy. He’s just a joy to be around. It reminds us how lucky we are to be playing college hockey.” 

There are innumerable stories like these, about courageous kids and generous athletes. In just 18 months of existence, Team Impact has already touched so many lives in a positive way.

“It’s just such a great opportunty, not only for the young kids who are going through such a difficult time, but also for the student athletes,” said Curry athletic director Vinnie Eruzione. “Student athletes go through a grind, but when they show up at the locker room and see what these kids and their families are going through, they understand what’s really important.”