Due to the recent successes of Tufts’ sports teams, athletes are becoming more well-known on campus. However, not many students know about Matthew Govostes or Joli Vega, two children who were “drafted” to the men’s and women’s soccer team (respectively) though an organization called Team IMPACT.
Team IMPACT is a non-profit organization that pairs a child suffering from a life-threatening or chronic illness with a local college athletic team. It was founded four years ago by a team of seven people, five of whom were Tufts graduates, according to Dan Walsh (LA ’87), one of the founders and a current board member.
“It’s been a team effort from the get-go, different people bring different skills, different networks, funding, ideas, it’s been a great team effort to bring this together,” Walsh said.
Kris Herman (J ’86), another founder and current board member, was involved in a similar organization 10 years ago when she first came up with the idea.
“[They] worked with kids with brain tumors, so they had a narrow focus on children with brain tumors and their siblings,” she said. “And that was really great, very rewarding, I matched probably – I helped them match like 300 teams and really, really enjoyed getting to know that population.”
However, Herman ultimately made the decision to leave in order to help start building Team IMPACT, citing, among various reasons for leaving, the organization’s narrow focus.
“We thought there [were] many more children that … could benefit from this type of relationship,” she said.
Herman’s role in founding the group was largely based in outreach to the athletic teams. Having coached at Tufts — and now coaching at Williams — Herman was able to take advantage of her connections and knowledge of collegiate athletic departments’ inner workings.
“We had a model, some ideas of what we would ask from them and not ask from them from the start, which is: ‘We’re not asking much, we’re asking just to be who you are already, and share that with some other people just by letting them be a part of your team and giving them a hat and a jersey and letting them hang around,’” she said. “That’s the beauty of it, the simplicity.”
According to Herman, a passion for sports was common to all of the founders’ backgrounds.
“People do what [they] know,” she said. “But sports are something that brings people together on all levels in general, something to cheer for, something that has success and failure … we know that sports offers tons of lessons.”
According to Walsh, one of the biggest challenges of creating the organization from scratch was not recruiting teams, but rather gaining the trust of the medical world.
“We’re essentially asking to be included in the continuum of care for this child,” he said. “That’s, understandably, a very skeptical medical community. They’re looking for, ‘refer to doctor so and so, or to this trained medical professional, and you’re asking me to refer kids to you?’”
Now, with a board of advisers who work to help the organization in exactly that area, its legitimacy is less of a problem.
However, today IMPACT faces more challenges in its outreach to children than to athletic teams. According to Duke Little, IMPACT’s executive director, there are currently many more teams than children seeking matches.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to find some sustainable funding for the non-profit so that we can continue to grow, and to react to the interest that there is for the program,” Little said.
Little said that in order to find more kids, the organization will need more funding to expand its presence in other regions.
“With 800-plus college sports teams throughout the country waiting for us to find them teammates, we definitely need funding so that we can staff up our regional case management role, we can find more kids and make more matches,” he said.
According to Little, the organization’s current goal, therefore, is to spread awareness through grassroots campaigns and a push for brand name recognition.
According to the Team IMPACT website, Tufts has six athletic teams who have participated in the program: men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s lacrosse and men’s sailing.
The men’s soccer team has been paired with a boy named Matthew Govostes, who has had multiple operations on his heart, including a transplant when he was in the first grade.
“He’s just this really positive, bright, mature boy, and … he inspires us,” coach Josh Shapiro said. “Everyone on the team. And it’s just amazing how this nine-year-old boy just can really just pump us up before a game. It’s incredible.”
The team, like others with team IMPACT kids, has held various events for Matthew, including a pizza party “draft” and a team dinner.
“It’s like a two-way thing, where not only Matt Govostes, or the child that’s connected to a team, is able to grow, but as a team we’re also able to grow by watching a child – a boy or a girl – go through a tough situation,” Kento Nakamura, a senior on the team, said.
Nakamura said that Matt’s positivity has had a powerful influence on the team.
“Fortunately he has a very positive outlook on life. And that really inspires us to grow as people, not only just soccer players,” he said.
The women’s soccer team, which also “drafted” a child, has felt the same positive effects. Their matched child is Joli Vega, who at the age of two was diagnosed with retinoblastoma and had her eye removed.
“When you’re out on the field and you think you’re tired and you think you can’t run another 20-yard sprint or it’s cold, or you just got … kicked in the back of the ankle, or something’s happening to you, I think for our kids it’s like, ‘Well wait a minute, look at what she’s been through, how can I even begin to complain about something so silly?’” coach Martha Whiting said. “And I think what it gives is perspective.”
What makes the experience even more surprising, Whiting said, is the age at which these children are overcoming their illness.
“I do know that being an 11-year-old is not the easiest thing to do,” she said. “Kids aren’t always nice. But I do know that for her, when she’s here, she is loved.”
Whiting has enjoyed watching Joli be accepted by the team.
“It’s hard not to smile when you feel like you’re loved by a giant group of girls that really care about you,” she said. “Being around our girls is a happy thing for her. And it’s fun, and she feels important.”
Another benefit for the team has been their ability to watch Joli’s progression over the years.
“It’s been really fun to watch her grow and mature,” Whiting said. “At the beginning when she was coming, she was really shy, and you know, wouldn’t really talk a lot, and now … she’ll just come busting down the sideline.”
Matt has been showing a similar growth in confidence, according to Shapiro.
“I think our guys feel very connected to him, I think he feels very connected to our team, and that is the goal and I think in speaking with [his mother] there’s been a real positive effect within his confidence and his personality,” he said.
Positive effects on both sides have manifested themselves in many different ways. For instance, Annie Artz, the IMPACT on-campus student ambassador, noted that both the men’s lacrosse and men’s soccer teams won national championships within a year of their first IMPACT matches.
“For the players and for the team IMPACT kids, that’s huge,” Artz said.
Mary Welker, the Massachusetts regional manager for IMPACT, mentioned yet another positive impact for the college teams.
“What I have learned from working here and working with a lot of the student athletes and what … I’m … excited about is being able to sort of give the student athletes another perspective and to open their horizons and expand their horizons to other things,” Welker said.
Welker hopes that the experience will help the athletes be more sensitive to those with special needs later in life.
“Ten years from now, when they’re coaching their kids’ little league team or soccer team, if they’re willing to let somebody with special needs join their team, [and] be more open to that, then that’s incredible,” she said.
Welker said that ultimately, however, the best thing the organization provides is simply the support that suffering kids and their families sometimes need more than anything.
“A lot of times their lives are so focused on medical treatments … because they’re sick, taking medication or having procedures,” Welker said. “And if this gives them something else to think about, you know, when they go there, they’re not a kid with cancer, they’re just a member of the team.”