Throwing cancer a curveball

How Team Impact provided the Wheaton Women’s Softball team with their youngest player

By Grace Kenyon

Sports are about facing adversity. Athletes persevere through physical challenges, grueling training and personal limitations, always pushing themselves. Confronting the frustrations of competition and learning how to work together is part of the daily routine for an athlete. They may even have to deal with injuries that threaten to end seasons or even careers. This year, some Wheaton College athletes have had the opportunity to learn from someone who has faced enough physical adversity for a lifetime.

Meet the youngest member of the Wheaton College Softball team, Ella Joy. This young girl is well-accustomed to hitting the curve balls that life throws at her. At just nine years old, she is already fighting a long battle against non-hodgkin’s lymphoma and t-cell leukemia. She first connected with the softball team through an organization called Team Impact, a national nonprofit that matches college and university sports teams with kids who are struggling with serious or chronic illnesses. According to the organization’s website, the goal of Team Impact is to bring courage, confidence and a sense of belonging to young people ages 5-16 by connecting them to older athletes who can act as supportive role models.

Claire Busch, a freshman on the softball team, described Team Impact in an email as “life-changing.” Beka Behrens, senior and student manager for the softball team, said they bond with Ella Job by treating her like a full member of the team. They had an official signing day when Ella Joy was drafted, and she has since attended practices, games, and team bonding events.

In 2011, co-founders Jay Calnan and Dan Kraft assembled a team of former classmates and business associates that work to connect teams and kids. The non-profit, headquartered in Quincy, Mass., is “honored and inspired to continue and expand the long standing tradition of athletes paying tribute to something that is far greater than themselves; the ability to come together, serve the community and support each and every member of the team through adversity both on and off the field,” according to their website.

The program strives to approach each relationship intentionally and holistically. Teams are given training to help them serve their young members. These relationships typically last two to three years, but participants make every effort to cater to each child’s needs.

Behrens is one of a few softball players who hold larger leadership roles with Team Impact as part of Ella Joy’s “Leadership Team.” This team was responsible for connecting with the organization and helping host the team breakfast where the softball team was able to meet Ella Joy and her family. Busch has a similar role as one of Ella Joy’s team advocates. She works alongside team members to check on Ella Joy even when she is too busy to be on campus with the team.

Behrens described the first time she met Ella Joy. “At first she was really shy but it was neat to watch her blossom over the course of our event. She started talking with us and playing games, and I felt like I could tangibly see her becoming a part of our team in front of my eyes.” She also said, “As we strive to grow closer to Ella Joy and her family, we have established a relationship with them and have been able to show them we care and love having her on the team.”

Part of how the team helps kids feel a sense of belonging is by hosting an official “signing day,” in which they get the experience of joining the team just like any college-aged student would. Both Behrens and Busch described this day as one of their favorite memories from their involvement with Team Impact.

Busch said, “It was so precious to see her smile when we gave her a personalized fan shirt and she got to ‘sign’ to be on our team! Her laughter during the games we played with her as a team and her delight when she would stump us with a riddle or a joke made me smile because every little moment is a reminder of the differences we can make.”

While Ella Joy has not been around as much this semester due to her schedule, she has continued to make an impact on the team. Busch said that although the experience obviously impacts the kids, it is also a wonderful experience for the team. “ special experience for us athletes as we get to pour into them and walk alongside them as they grow while including them as part of the team as much as we can.”

Busch also mentioned a few ways in which she has personally grown through Wheaton’s partnership with Team Impact. She said, “being involved with Team Impact has taught me leadership, compassion, appreciation and has humbled me greatly.” The athletes involved in this program strive to inspire young kids going through difficult seasons of life, but the kids end up inspiring them in return. A common thread mentioned by both softball players was the admiration for Ella Joy’s resilience in the face of serious illness.

For the athletes involved, Team Impact is a reminder that sports should not just be about competition, but also about giving back. In Busch’s words, “It is such an awesome opportunity for us to be a part of something greater than softball.” Though the organization itself is not explicitly Christian, softball players have sought to integrate their faith in the friendships built with these young players. Behrens said that “through including Ella Joy in WCSB (Wheaton College Softball), we have an opportunity to remind her that she is valued by both our team and God. Sports are an amazing place of connection for children.”

Busch said there were many lasting impacts she learned from the children that she has gotten to interact with. She told the Record, “It is so unique to become a part of a child’s story as they grow up and fight battles that we are unfamiliar with, but as soon as we established this relationship with Ella Joy it has taught my teammates and I about the importance of friendship, and how small acts of kindness can go a long way. As an athlete I have learned to be appreciative of the gifts God has given me and to never take those for granted.”

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