Their Most Special Teammates

Children with serious illnesses are matched with Jumbo athletic teams, benefitting kids and student-athletes alike, thanks to Team IMPACT, which was co-founded by Tufts alums
A little girl with three women college soccer players at a game. Thanks to Team IMPACT, co-founded by Tufts alums, children with serious illnesses are matched with college athletic teams, bringing belonging to the kids and perspective to the players
Cleo Hirsch, A12, shares a moment with 8-year-old Joli Talusan Vega on the sidelines before a soccer game in September 2011. Vega was just accepted to the Tufts Class of 2025. Photo: Alonso Nichols
April 7, 2021

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On March 30, Joli Talusan Vega got good news: she’d been accepted to Tufts as a member of the incoming Class of 2025. But in fact, it was more like a homecoming.

Vega had been a member of the Tufts community since 2011, when she “signed” with the Jumbo women’s soccer team, thanks to Team IMPACT, which matches children with chronic or serious illness with college athletic teams nationwide. She was diagnosed with retinoblastoma as a two-year-old, and quickly was embraced by the team, attending games and events for the next four years.

“It was really a grounding point for me, and I think that’s why Tufts is at the top of my list, because I love my life there,” said Vega.

Another Team IMPACT youngster, Zach Cummings, was accepted early decision at Tufts two months ago. Diagnosed in early 2017 with acute lymphoblastic lymphoma, he started joining the team for practices, games, team dinners, and special events that September. “Tufts is my family, and when it came down to a big decision like that, I think the decision was right to choose family,” he told a TV reporter.

Team IMPACT, which was co-founded by six Tufts alumni in 2011, helps children overcome the emotional and social challenges of their serious illnesses by matching them with college athletic teams. In the program, children across the country participate in team practices and games and social functions, building relationships and confidence.

Tufts Athletics teams have now had a total 17 matches with Team IMPACT, tied for fourth—along with six other colleges and universities across the country—for number of matches. There are currently six Jumbo teams with active matches—and the pandemic hasn’t stopped the connections, even if it has made them virtual. In fact, Tufts and Team IMPACT recently agreed to an official partnership between the organizations.

“It’s probably the best thing Tufts ever did—those alums getting Team IMPACT going and Tufts embracing it,” says John Casey, A80, head baseball coach, whose team is currently matched with Cooper, who battled a brain tumor called medulloblastoma as a first grader. “That organization doesn’t only make a difference in those kids’ lives; it makes a difference in every one of the team members’ lives as well.”

Matches in the Making

One of the moving forces behind Team IMPACT was Jay Calnan, E87. His younger brother found great joy as a teenager as a ball boy for his local minor league baseball team, despite medical complications that precluded playing sports. Soon Calnan was noticing other efforts to match young people who had serious medical issues with sports teams, giving them a sense of belonging. Usually those efforts were the result of random connections, or focused on kids with specific health conditions.

Members of the Tufts football team with Zack Cummings, center. “Tufts is my family,” said Cummings.Calnan had played sports all his youth, and realized they gave him many opportunities “to learn life skills: work ethic, teamwork, discipline, perseverance, grit, leadership skills, followship skills,” he says. “All of those great things came from my opportunity to play sports.”

He and fellow Tufts classmate Dan Kraft, A87, thought it would be great to be part of an organization that could give those same kinds of gifts to kids who couldn’t otherwise participate because of serious health complications. They recruited other friends, including three from their Tufts undergraduate class—Robert Tishman, Dan Walsh, and Kris Herman—along with Mark Plansky, Scott Tully, F10, and Tim Kelly, and started Team IMPACT on Mother’s Day 2011.

At the beginning, it was run out of Calnan’s business’s office. Through the group’s connections, they matched Team IMPACT’s first child, who was at Children’s Hospital in Boston, with a team at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., which was the school closest to the family. Almost a decade later, Team IMPACT has matched more than 2,200 children with sports teams in Divisions I, II, and III across the country.

A Powerful Example

Joli Talusan Vega was the third Team IMPACT match ever, when the women’s soccer team welcomed her and her family in 2011. “This was really cool for her to be around all these grown women who thought the world of her and made a big deal out of her when she was here,” says head coach Martha Whiting, J93.

“It was an amazing experience to just interact with the team, and see not just the competitiveness but the community that women put together,” Joli Vega said. Here she is as an 8-year-old in a huddle with the Tufts women's soccer team before a match on Sept. 17, 2011. Photo: Alonso NicholsVega would come to games and occasionally practices, watching with the other players on the sideline, “holding their hands and cheering on the team,” Whiting says. “She’s turned out to be an incredible kid. It’s just so heartwarming for us to see how far she’s come.”

“I think being young and seeing such confident and powerful women really did something for me,” says Vega. “They would say to me, “Make sure you do well in school, so you can come here one day.’ That was something that always stuck with me.”

“I used to be a really sensitive kid—and I still am—but just seeing women who wouldn’t let that hold them back was amazing,” says Vega. “It was an amazing experience to just interact with the team, and see not just the competitiveness but the community that women put together. It really does teach me how strong women are.”

“The kids are getting a sense of belonging,” adds Calnan. “That’s cheering on a team and having some sense of accomplishment by being a participant and belonging to something. Those are huge, huge values for these kids who are traditionally isolated by their medical conditions.”

“What I really love about Team IMPACT is how transformative it is for everyone involved—not just the kids,” says Dan Kraft, A87, one of the co-founders. “I want to be involved and give back in truly tangible ways, improving people’s lives, and that’s what Team IMPACT has been doing since the beginning. The effect that the relationships have for everyone involved endures well beyond the life of the program.”

The program helps the whole family, too. “We often hear the families say, ‘We never thought our kid would be able to be part of a team, because of the ailment they’re dealing with.’ And this gives them a chance to not only be part of a team, but be surrounded by mentors, role models, big brothers, big sisters,” says Kraft.

A Member of the Team

In 2018 the women’s lacrosse team was matched with Grace, a young woman with a rare chromosomal birth defect that dramatically shortens one’s lifespan. “She’s quite literally a living miracle,” says head coach Courtney Shute. Grace and the team members took to each other instantly, she says.

Grace at her draft day in 2018 with the women’s lacrosse team. At the event, Tufts head coach Courtney Shute said, "Grace has already inspired us and we're looking forward to having her as a part of our team this year." In the spring of 2019, the team made the NESCAC finals, which were being held at Middlebury in Vermont. Shute and Grace’s mom made a plan for Grace to attend. “When the team’s bus arrived at the hotel in Vermont, Grace and her sister and her mom were at the hotel with signs to surprise the team,” says Shute. “They spent the weekend with us for the semifinals and final game. Grace walked out to the field with us and was very much a part of that. It was super special.”

“Our relationship with Team IMPACT and the Tufts women’s lacrosse team came at such an important time in Grace’s life,” says her mother Cathy. “Her social circle was small, her health and mobility were declining, and she was a teenager, when these things are so important. Becoming part of the Tufts women’s lacrosse program let her become part of something bigger than herself, to feel a sense of pride and belonging that she had never had before.” 

Normally, teams are matched for a two-year period with children, but the lacrosse team wanted to extend the connection with Grace, “an amazing young woman,” says Shute. In the late fall of 2020, she had her 17th birthday, and her family celebrated with a socially distanced parade in October. “We had cars from Tufts that drove by and honked and said hi to Grace in Melrose. It was just a really special opportunity to see her,” says Shute. “Our team loves Grace.”

During the pandemic the team kept in touch with Grace through video chats and texts, “brightening her days when she was so isolated and lonely,” her mother says.  “The ability to be part of a team, the friendships, excitement, encouragement, and camaraderie, would be impossible without an organization like Team IMPACT and the amazing universities and athletes that participate.” 

Helping the Helpers

It’s not just the children who benefit—the student-athletes do, too. In ordinary circumstances, they might be feeling sorry for themselves for being on the bench, letting in a goal, missing a key shot—anything related to the game.

Cooper and his family at his 2017 draft day with Jumbos baseball head coach John Casey. "Cooper is an amazing kid and we're happy to have him as part of our team," Casey said at the event.“And then they look down at the end of the bench and they see their Team IMPACT teammate, who has been through so much, and it totally changes their perspective on what’s really important in life,” says Calnan. “That’s what we want to instill in these future leaders—maintain a perspective and be thankful for what you have.”

Shute says that her lacrosse players “are incredibly driven women, both on and off the field. They’re future doctors and lawyers and leaders.” When they “become almost too serious about lacrosse,” she says, seeing their youngest teammate provides balance.

“We’re playing a game that we love with people that we love—Grace is a great reminder of that,” says Shute. “She has a soul that’s pretty contagious, a personality that exudes positive energy and is just an absolute pleasure to be around.”

Kraft tells the story of one student-athlete on a Division I team who ended up changing her major to pre-med based solely on her experiences with her Team IMPACT-matched child—she now wanted to become a pediatrician.

Whether it’s shifting their career paths or brightening their weekly practices, the children have a real effect on students’ lives. “I just don’t think you can have a bad day when you’re around those kids and see what they’re going through,” said Casey.

A Tradition of Connection

When teams are matched with children, their support extends to the child’s healthy siblings, too. In 2017, the men’s basketball team was matched with Luke, who has cystic fibrosis, and included Luke’s twin brother Gianni in their activities as well.

Luke at his draft day in 2017 with then basketball head coach Bob Shelton. "We are all very excited to welcome Luke and his family into our family," Sheldon said.While Luke’s health sometimes kept him at home, most of the time he “was able to come to practice, hang out with the guys, and bring his brother and the rest of his family with him,” says Matt Malone, the interim head men’s basketball coach and the assistant athletic director.

“We signed him on his birthday, so it became a tradition that every year we would have a birthday party for him,” he says. “They’d come and bring their family and friends and just play basketball here in Cousens Gym, really get to spend time with the guys.”

Before the match with Luke, most of the basketball team members didn’t know about cystic fibrosis, so Team IMPACT staff and Luke’s mom worked together to provide the players with information on the life-altering disease and its treatment.

“We got to see the happy guy that gets to come in and play basketball and hang out with his friends and be competitive,” says Malone. “But what we didn’t get to see is all the time that he had to spend getting treatments. There were times where he would spend hundreds of days a year in the hospital.”

The pandemic has been really hard on people with cystic fibrosis, very isolating. But the basketball team has been trying to stay connected virtually with Luke. “We’re trying out some new things with the guys, playing video games, things that they can do with Luke and Gianni to stay connected,” says Malone. “But we haven’t gotten to have the interactions that we’re used to and that we’d like to have with Luke and the rest of his family.”

An Enduring Bond

Every child who participates in Team IMPACT is different; some thrive on the attention, and some take a bit more warming up. When the women’s soccer team was matched with Emily in 2017, the big production about being signed to the team was almost overwhelming at first.

Once the ceremony was over, though, the players took her out to the field and played with her, “and she warmed up—she had so much fun and just came out of her shell,” says Whiting. “They were giving her piggybacks and playing with the ball and it just was a really cool thing.”

The women’s soccer team performs a Halloween “Hamilton” for their Team IMPACT teammate Emily in front of her home in 2020. Like other Team IMPACT kids, Emily has a sibling—her younger sister, Megan—who became part of the Jumbo family as well. The family lives in Medford, so contact with the team is easy. Back in pre-pandemic days, the soccer players had the girls over for movie nights, pizza parties, and bowling. “They came to practices and games, they did Halloween with us,” says Whiting. “It’s the girls on the team that they want to hang out with.”

There’s a strong bond between Emily’s family and all the players—the family even brings gifts to the seniors when they graduate, Whiting says. With the pandemic, the students have been trying to stay in touch virtually—and sometimes safely in person. They had a socially distanced movie night outdoors in the warmer weather, and on Halloween the team did a costume version of Hamilton, singing and dancing for Emily in her front yard.

Emily feels like she’s part of the team, and the players feel that connection, too. “When Emily’s around, it’s hard to complain,” says Whiting. “It’s really neat to see how she grounds us. It just makes us realize that we have it good, and that there are some other people that have it a lot tougher. It brings us back to reality and to what is important in life.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.