Nonprofit links school teams to kids facing tough illnesses

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When Williams Colleges's men's soccer team was down 1-0 last November against St. Lawrence, their linchpin was Zac Daniels.

He made the difference, though he's only 11 years old. Zac had recently been "drafted" as part of a program called Team Impact, a nonprofit that matches kids who have, or have recently battled, a life-threatening illness, with a college sports team.

Coach Mike Russo was trying to rally his players at halftime.

"Zac raised his hand and said ‘My team's motto is defense first, then attack,' " says team captain Matt Ratajczak. "It was a turning point for me. That's where the impact in Team Impact comes in."

"It was incredibly confident for him to step forward at a tense moment like that," says Russo."It gave us a tremendous amount of inspiration."

Williams went on to win 2-1 and advance to the semi-finals NCAA Tournament in San Antonio, TX.

Of such moments, Zac himself said: "It's like suddenly it hits you. You are on the team. You should feel as nervous as the team feels, as nervous, happy or frustrated as they're feeling."

Quincy based Team Impact was started in 2011 by a group of former Tufts athletes, most of whom had worked with Friends of Jaclyn, a nonprofit that connects children who have brain tumors with school teams. The Tufts alums, including Williams' softball coach Kris Herman, wanted to extend the team experience to more kids.

The program is active in more than 100 colleges in the Northeast and Midwest. Williams has a roster of four, ranging in age from 6 to 17.

The youngsters participate in practices as their health permits, sit with the team at games and generally "hang out" with the other players and talk sports.

"The big advantage is I see what drills they do and that sort of thing," said Zac Daniels.

Herman says matching involves referrals from pediatricians, special camps and other sources, but "there's no cookie cutter recruiting process."

Zac's mother, Melanie Daniels, got him involved when she heard about the program through a friend.

Team Impact considers quality of life, logistics, sports interest and gender when matching kids and teams. But Herman is clear: "This is more about teams than sports."

"It's powerful to be part of a team, to know that other people have your back," says Dr. Sarah Brand of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and a member of Team Impact's medical advisory board. "Sometimes these kids have a foreshortened sense of the future.

This opens their eyes to the possibility of the things they can do."

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"Now they might be thinking about the next pizza party with the team, instead of the next MRI," Herman points out.

Team Impact also takes the family into account. Siblings are included in many events, and the relationship extends beyond the playing field with dinners, movie nights, or phone calls during hospital stays.

Williams sophomore Andrew Bravo has even been helping Zac Daniels with his schoolwork. "I try to show him the connection between angles in soccer strategy and math," says Bravo. "I give him some tips and by the end of the session he gets it."

Melanie Daniels says Zac couldn't have been drafted by the Ephs at a better time. Born with a diaphragmatic hernia, he was guided through much of his medical treatment by his grandmother, who was a nurse. She died unexpectedly last fall.

"My mother walked every step of the way with Zac," Melanie says."Just when we lost our biggest support system, we got our next support system. Having a child who's medically involved can be a lonely road to walk. Now we have 25 guys who will walk it with us. That's powerful."

Daniels says squeezing in team events amidst doctor appointments and general family life isn't quite as difficult as it might seem.

"They impart a strength to him that makes things easier."

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She wants prospective Team Impact parents to know the "energy return" more than compensates for the additional scheduling.

The energy return, it seems, works for the college players as well.

"We might complain about doing an extra run or something. Then we think he's been through hell and back, and we know we can suck it up for a few minutes," says Ratajczak, referring to Zac's medical treatment. "

Hockey player, junior Paul Steinig, expresses similar sentiments about another young Williams draft, 6-year-old Zach Hillard of North Adams, who has cerebral palsy.

"He has awesome energy. Zach and his family go above and beyond what it means to be a teammate. There are no limits for a kid like him if he's willing to work around things."

Indeed, when being interviewed for this article, young Zach couldn't say enough about Williams as he displayed his collection of hockey pucks and stuffed animals named after the players.

Zach's big thing is to "check" other guys (which he does with a physical boost from his teammates).

"I had to do penalty push-ups for checking the coach off the ice. I actually liked it, but that will never happen again," Zach recalls then drops to his hands and knees and fires out a dozen push-ups.

"He just wants to talk hockey, to play hockey," says his father, Jeff Hillard.

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"I love it!" laughs Zach. "I get to skate a lot at practice, but not at games The ref's afraid I'll get like 14 penalties."

"He's been accepted by the team since day one," asserts Hillard. And it is striking how, despite age or physical differences, the Team Impact kids are truly considered part of the college teams.

"You can't fake that," says Brand."These players aren't doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. It's 200 percent authentic."

It's a point illustrated again by Williams' baseball team. Their 17-year-old draft from Adams, Billy O'Brien, "loves baseball maybe even more than the college players," according to coach Bill Barrale.

"Billy eats, sleeps and dreams baseball," says captain Taylor Mondshein. Asked if having a draft with that level of enthusiasm is like having a fan around, Mondshein says definitively, "I don't think of Billy as a fan, I think of him as a teammate."

"He's been like this with baseball since we can remember," said his mother, Leann O'Brien, during a recent practice at Williams' Towne Field House. But O'Brien says because of the cerebral palsy, Billy hasn't been able to participate on a team since he was in elementary school.

"Now five or six guys will take him to the dining hall and they'll just talk baseball.

"As soon as he was drafted it was as if he got 30 new best friends," she says. "It was during the Christmas break. These guys are away. They're in California or wherever. And Christmas Day they're texting my kid."

Williams' first Team Impact girl and most recent draft, Meghan Schrade, is also keyed up about the team experience. The 6-year-old from North Adams was born with congenital heart problems and recently received a third pacemaker.

"On draft night she had 17 young ladies trying to get her attention, and was just eating it up," says her mother Tracy Bassette."She said, ‘Mom, I'm going to be part of a team!' "

And Williams wants even more kids.

"The challenge is to find the kids," says Coach Herman. "The teams are ready to go."

Team Impact student ambassador and soccer player, sophomore Sarah Brink says her team keeps asking her " ‘When are we going to get a kid?' Maybe it's not the first thing parents of girls will think about, especially if they're dealing with illness. And maybe at 6, girls aren't necessarily into sports, but at 6 you don't always know what you like. This is about camaraderie."

Fellow ambassador, senior softball player, Kaitlin Dinet adds, "There's so much more than the game. But girls need to know they can play just as well as the boys."

Herman hopes in the future Team Impact will expand beyond sports to other group endeavors like theater.

"Harnessing the power of a team makes this unique," says Brand. "Kids want to be part of a group. It's human to want to be part of a group, and illness can be isolating."


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