‘The Most Amazing Experience’: Team IMPACT Improves Emotional Resilience for Pediatric Patients

‘The Most Amazing Experience’: Team IMPACT Improves Emotional Resilience for Pediatric Patients

The non-profit program partners with collegiate athletic teams to provide a unique system of social support for children with serious illnesses and disability.
Team Impact University of Cincinnati cheer squad.

“You know, cancer is actually really fun if you don’t have to take all the medicine.”

When 8-year-old Mia Lee said these words to her mom, Nar, it caught her off guard. After Mia’s three years of fighting cancer, of chemotherapy, allergic reactions, radiation therapy, and seemingly endless days at the hospital, that’s not what Nar expected to hear. But she knew exactly what Mia meant. “Now when she thinks of her cancer journey, she thinks of her team,” Nar said. “She’s not able to differentiate between the two. All she knows is she has all these amazing memories and opportunities that overshadowed the bad memories.”

While undergoing cancer treatment, Mia was connected to Tufts University field hockey through Team IMPACT, a program that matches children with serious illness and disability with college athletic teams. Children with serious illness or disability are often more disconnected from traditional social supports and communities due to their medical treatments, which may include prolonged or frequent hospital stays and school absences. Team IMPACT uses the power of teams to help fill that gap, fostering meaningful long-term relationships between collegiate players and patients and their families.

“It is the most amazing experience. They go above and beyond—like way above and beyond—what you could ever imagine someone would do for your child,” Nar said. “Mia is more confident. She tries things she never would have tried before. It has brought so much strength and joy to our family during some of the toughest years.”

A child is "signed" onto a college athletic team, becoming an official member who attends practices, games, and other team events. The immersive, multi-year experience provides a sense of belonging, support, and inspiration, helping children build confidence and resilience throughout their journey.

"It makes me happy because I know if I'm sad, I have someone to cheer me up. And when they're having a bad day, I can cheer them up," said Kyle, a young boy with cerebral palsy who is matched with John’s Hopkins University men’s lacrosse. “They're like my second family."

Though the program centers on athletic teams, the actual athletics are secondary to the social connections fostered between the team and the Team IMPACT match. There’s Averi, who waited patiently in the locker room for her friends on the University of Tennessee softball team to return from the College World Series and play Barbies with her. There’s Hailey, whose favorite memory is when her teammate met her at the hospital and led her on a blindfolded Easter egg hunt. There’s the young girl who felt alone at school and looked out from the stage of her musical as the Yale University women’s basketball team cheered wildly from the audience.

“For parents and their kids with a serious diagnosis, what underlies their lives is a fear of their child feeling they are different,” said Joe Daniels, CEO of Team IMPACT. “They love knowing their kid is being embraced by a team and feel they belong somewhere. They see it in their child's face. It's been the most beautiful part of my experience.”

Ten-year-old Ahlonnie Mosby celebrates with her match, California Baptist University softball team, after a victory.
She threw a near-perfect first pitch and was sharing tips and cheering on her teammates until the last out.

When she was a social worker at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Rachel Rogovin encountered a pattern among patients whose lives were changed by a life-altering disease. The hospital care team worked tirelessly to treat them, and child life teams and social workers made extraordinary efforts to support them socially and emotionally, but it was something else entirely that often made the biggest difference to the kids.

“It wouldn't be uncommon that I would work with families who spent two months in the hospital, and I would spend hours and hours of time with them. And they would go off to camp for a weekend and come back and say, ‘Our life was changed,’” said Rogovin, MSW, LICSW, who is now the senior director of clinical services at Team IMPACT. “That's how families feel about Team IMPACT because it's putting them back in the community, and everything in their life no longer revolves around their child being sick.”

Last year, Team IMPACT matched 565 kids with college athletic teams, totaling 3,348 since the program’s inception. To help more children match with teams and provide hospitals greater accessibility to the program, Team IMPACT has partnered with Children’s Hospital Association, which serves more than 200 children’s hospitals across the country.

“Team IMPACT’s mission aligns with the missions of our children’s hospitals,” said Matt Cook, CEO of Children’s Hospital Association. “Children’s hospitals provide not only specialized medical care for children but also holistic care, including social and emotional well-being for kids and their families. CHA is excited to embark on this partnership.”

Known as Captain Brave, six-year-old Weston Derrick enters the stadium of his match, the Boise State football team.

More than an experience

Instead of focusing on one big experience, Team IMPACT seeks to make long-term connections that improve outcomes. “Team IMPACT is not just about providing amazing experiences, though that certainly is an aspect of it,” Daniels said. “It’s the clinical underpinning and the long-term social connections that really make us different.”

Team IMPACT’s staff of clinical social workers and certified child life specialists ensure the right partnerships, create personalized goals, and monitor metrics for every child paired with a team.

“We're not just taking a kid and placing them on a team and hoping that works,” said Josh Walker, Mid-Atlantic regional executive director. “We've been very intentional about the process of finding the child the right team and the right situation that's right for their specific condition. And then we have a clinically trained professional to help walk that team and child through those two years.”

Emma cheers with her match, the University of Cincinnati cheer team. “Having Emma out there cheering with us
means a lot because she brings joy, unity, and fiery energy that everyone loves.” 

Long-term involvement in Team IMPACT is related to improvement in emotional resilience, which can influence overall quality of life for children with illness and disability. “What our families tell us is that their kids are more confident. They are more independent. They have a sense of hopefulness and see themselves in a different way. And what the data tells us is that there is an improved level of resilience,” Rogovin said.

The data Rogovin references are from a standardized survey she and her team use to evaluate the clinical IMPACT of the program. The outcomes speak for themselves:

  • 87% increase in physical activity.
  • 82% improved cooperation in medical care.
  • 82% improved independence with medical care.
  • 78% improved ability to advocate for themselves with the medical team.

The program produces these outcomes in myriad ways, but for Cora, diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, it was all about the encouragement from her athletic friends. During the pandemic, Cora couldn’t go in person to physical therapy appointments and was instructed to walk on the treadmill five minutes a day. Initially, the 5-year-old refused. But one day her mom shared a Spotify playlist created by her Team IMPACT teammates at the University of Minnesota. She was allowed to listen only while doing her modified physical therapy. Cora immediately got on the treadmill. Starting with one song, she worked her way up to a mile every day. She still listens to the playlist, which is now more than 17 hours long.

“It wasn't about a playlist for this little girl but about her team and the love that they had for her,” Rogovin said. “And it is a living playlist that has been added to over the years—every time one of the players hears a new song they think Cora will like, they add it. It has become a symbol of their relationship in a way that you could never have planned.”

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