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How Team IMPACT has helped area children with serious conditions find their niche

Team IMPACT, a multiyear program that matches children with college athletic teams, has helped 66 children in the Philadelphia area become honorary members of Big 5 programs.

Sarah Pliner (center), a brain tumor survivor, is an honorary member of the Villanova dance team through Team IMPACT, a nonprofit that connects children facing serious and chronic illnesses with college athletic teams.
Sarah Pliner (center), a brain tumor survivor, is an honorary member of the Villanova dance team through Team IMPACT, a nonprofit that connects children facing serious and chronic illnesses with college athletic teams.Read moreCourtesy of Team IMPACT

Sarah Pliner loves to dance. At age 3, she would light up the room with her favorite hip-hop moves. Nothing could stop her from moving around. So when she complained about leg pain and fatigue, her mother, Debra, thought something was wrong.

The issues lingered until Sarah was 8 years old. Her pediatrician recommended undergoing an MRI at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. It was then the doctors happened to catch something in Sarah’s skull and found out that she had a brain tumor called cerebellar astrocytoma.

“When she woke up from surgery, she couldn’t walk, she had lost use of her dominant hand, her right hand at the time,” Debra, of Maple Glen, said. “She had double vision, and she had word-finding difficulties. It was really traumatic to go from overnight to a very different kid.”

Sarah spent years going to various therapies. And then in 2020, the tumor had returned.

That’s when Debra discovered Team IMPACT, a multiyear program that matches children facing serious illness and disability with college athletic teams across the country.

Debra thought the program would be an opportunity for Sarah, now 14, to build confidence. After the second surgery, Sarah struggled with self-esteem, Drebra said.

“She was very shy and guarded,” she said. “When she started with Team IMPACT, she kept thinking, ‘I don’t want to be part of something because there was something wrong with me.’ We had to really work with her and talk to her about what happened to her.

“This is not about having a brain tumor. This is not about needing extensive rehab. This is about being part of a team and having a bunch of girls support her. She eventually did start to kind of see all the amazing things that came with being part of a team.”

Sarah has been an honorary member of the Villanova dance team through Team IMPACT for the past three years.

The student-athletes have been by her side, watching her regain the physical and mental strength to dance again. They even performed a dance routine with Sarah at her bat mitzvah last year.

“I put her back in dance after her first surgery, she said, ‘Mommy, I used to love dance. Now, this is just frustrating,’ ” Debra said. “When she became a part of Team IMPACT, they gave her opportunities to dance with them at football games, basketball games, and practice. It completely inspired her to go back to dance.”

The Boston-based nonprofit, which was founded in 2011, launched in Philadelphia in 2017 and has expanded to nearly 750 college campuses in all 50 states.

Since then, Team IMPACT has matched 66 children in the area with Big 5 schools, said CEO Seth Rosenzweig. Some of those families will be honored Saturday during the Big 5 Classic at Wells Fargo Center.

In 2022, Team IMPACT served children with more than 250 different diagnoses nationwide. The program also measures how being on a team can help children who are dealing with medical appointments and hospitalizations stay positive and motivated.

“To be a truly imperative, impactful organization that has real clinical value on the psychosocial care of these kids and families, and how we can impact the student-athletes and their own mental well-being, we’re going in the right direction,” Rosenzweig said. “We feel like we have great momentum, and we’re excited about what we can do over the next several years.”

Being a part of the program has given student-athletes a new perspective. O’Neil Dawes, a junior on Villanova’s men’s soccer team, is a testament to that. Two years ago, his team matched with 7-year-old Elwood Westhoff, who lives with neuromuscular disease.

Dawes and Westhoff formed a friendship. They FaceTime often, play video games, and crack jokes at practice when Westhoff, who’s from Collegeville, is there. But there’s a memory that has stuck with Dawes.

“When I first meet Elwood, I wasn’t playing because I was hurt,” Dawes said. “I spent a lot of time with him every day, and he would say, ‘Soccer is kind of a temporary thing. There’s always something out there down the road.’ I think he said that a lot because he’s been through so much, and it made me much more appreciative of what I have. It’s helped me grow not only as an athlete but a man.”

Laura Cadge has served as Team IMPACT’s senior case manager of the Philadelphia area for two years. The Temple graduate previously worked at CHOP for 10 years as a child life specialist. In her role, she shepherds the relationship between the children and college athletic programs.

The most important aspect, Cadge said, about the organization is giving children a sense of belonging.

“When they’re in treatment or in the hospital, they lose out on building friendships, relationships, or being able to be part of a team,” Cadge said. “I think that’s just an amazing thing for a kid to have. Then on top of that, from a student-athlete perspective, I think it really is one of those sticking points and makes them realize that there’s more out there than the sport.”