Joli, an eight year old from Brockton, MA was diagnosed with Retinoblastoma at the age of two. After going in for a check-up with the expectation that Joli may need glasses, her parents soon learned that Joli had a rare form of pediatric eye cancer. Within 24 hours of being diagnosed, and in order to save her life, Joli had to undergo six hours of emergency surgery to have her right eye removed. Soon after, Joli was subjected to six months of intensive chemotherapy followed by subsequent treatment, prosthetic fittings, and check-ups that lasted for many years at Mass General Hospital and Mass Eye and Ear.
From a social and psychological perspective, undergoing such vigorous treatment at such a young age can have a lasting impact on a child for years to come. Commonly, children in similar situations will become particularly shy and reserved as a result of their treatment and the amount of time spent around so many adults in the form of countless doctors and specialists. Children that endure these treatments eventually realize they have been through a unique experience that has made them 'different' from everyone else. This can be very isolating and have a profoundly adverse impact on their self-confidence and the way they interact in social settings as they grow older. These are just the kind of courageous kids that can greatly benefit from the boost provided by a Team IMPACT relationship. In Joli's case, the boost came in the form of 25 kind and compassionate big sisters from the Tufts soccer team.
After hearing about Team IMPACT from Camp Sunshine, Joli was drafted by the women's soccer team at Tufts University on a hot summer day in July of 2011 where she was welcomed by Head Coach Martha Whiting, Athletic Director Bill Gehling, and a core of eight Jumbo players. Before being formally introduced to the team Joli, a generally shy young girl, was coached by her mom about the importance of opening up and making an effort to get to know her new teammates. Shortly after being officially drafted onto the team and receiving her Tufts game jersey, the typically reserved Joli was unrecognizable to her mom, as she was soon holding court in the middle of her new soccer sisters.
This Draft Day served as the beginning of what was has become a meaningful set of relationships for all of the participants. Joli saw the players both on and off the field throughout the summer, going to the movies with some of them, making posters to show her support for the team, and even making friendship bracelets for each of the players. Once the season started and the relationships grew, Joli and her mom became a fixture on the Tufts soccer sidelines for both home and away games. After each visit Joli would come home beaming about the time she was able to spend with her teammates on the squad.
Joli's dad Jorge had this to share about the experience so far; "It is clear that Joli has made a great connection with these young women, they do lots of simple big sister stuff that has made big impact on Joli. It is great to see how invested these women are in Joli's life. These young athletes and academics are real rock stars for Joli, and the relationships are 10 times more powerful than most of the rock stars that other kids have in their life"
Joli's mom Liza had this perspective to share on the experience so far; "Joli has already learned important lessons and gained a lot of confidence from this experience. It was fun to see Joli being a little more aggressive in her own soccer games after visiting with her Tufts team. Although the girls never talk about being strong girls, or never talk about empowerment, or never talk about what it means to be assertive, the girls show it in their actions. Joli has watched this and has benefited from it. Lessons learned from the very same girls who off the field are the sweetest people ever; that are so kind and so thoughtful, and I think it has been important for Joli to see that this can exist."
In the words of Tufts senior Cleo Hirsch, "Joli is an incredibly special part of our team. She provided an additional dynamic to our team this season that none of us could ever have imagined when we first agreed to participate in the Team IMPACT program. To have her and all of her excitement and enthusiasm with us on the sidelines was awesome. My teammates and I are definitely getting a lot out of this experience. It's fun, and beyond that, she's taught us a lot about having perspective on life, about appreciating what we have and how lucky we are as student athletes to be doing what we do."
When asked about a particular moment that illustrates the essence of a Team IMPACT relationship, Joli's mom Liza shared the story of what she termed a 'great moment' that happened after a difficult loss for the Lady Jumbos. After a particularly tough, late season loss to rival Bates, Liza shared:
"I'll never forget walking into the holding area after that game, where it was so silent you could hear a pin drop. The women were really upset- so upset that they couldn't really articulate what it felt like. It was a very sad moment for the players and Joli was crying because it was obvious how heartbroken her teammates were. Then on her own in the middle of all of this silence and sadness Joli started walking around the room to quietly share a simple thought with each of the individual players; "Thank you for letting me be a part of your team this season," "Thank you for letting me a part of your team," "Thank you for letting me a part of your team this season," "Thank you for letting me a part of your team," and around the room she went".
This simple but powerful gesture provided some important perspective on the tough loss. Joli's lap around the room to thank each player had a profound impact on both the girls and the mood in the room. The same gesture and all of the subsequent hugging that ensued illustrates just how these Team IMPACT relationships provide support and perspective for each and every member of the team both on and off the field.
There are so many other stories that have come from this relatively new relationship. Being a member of the Tufts team has become an important and integral part of Joli's life. When Joli broke her arm, both Joli and her mom's first instincts were to tell her soccer sisters. As an upset Joli was in a gurney getting her cast, her mom read all of the supportive emails and texts that kept coming in from the team. When they returned home from the hospital Joli and her mom were greeted by a bouquet of balloons from the team. As Tufts senior Cleo Hirsch mentioned, "We are probably getting more out of it than she is. I feel like I have a new little sister and best friend. It's not every day that you get to meet someone from a different age group than yourself that you get close to- it's really exciting and fun."
Perhaps this quote from Joli's mom after a long road trip to an away game with the team best captures the nature of the relationship:
"3 ½ hours in a car (each way) with 3 kids under 7 years of age, difficult; 1 ½ tanks of gas for the long trip $60; tolls on the Maine Turnpike $10; seeing my daughter Joli on the sidelines loving life with her teammates, PRICELESS!"
Stay tuned to learn more about Joli's Journey with the Jumbos.