Fifteen-year-old Marianne Mahoney is something of a secret weapon for the Northeastern University women’s ice hockey team.
The Newton teen has the congenital disorder spina bifida, and is in a wheelchair, and she’s ever present at Husky games.
“Marianne helps our players learn how to deal with adversity,” said Northeastern coach Dave Flint. “Our kids can look at Marianne and see she has such a positive outlook on life. The obstacles that are in her way, she doesn’t let those slow her down.’’
She joined the Huskies this fall through Team IMPACT, a Quincy-based nonprofit that connects hundreds of children suffering from debilitating or life-threatening illnesses with college athletes around the country. The program gives athletes a chance to give back, but also to further their own education.
“They’ve all embraced Marianne,” said Flint. “They look forward to her showing up at the rink. They’ve actually been bringing her into the locker room between periods. Sometimes it’s tough for me, because I want to lay into the team and drop a couple of expletives, and I can’t because Marianne is sitting there. Maybe they’re onto something.”
Sometimes, when the coach gets a little animated, Marianne will raise her hand quietly.
“So he’ll say, ‘What, Marianne?’ And she goes ‘I just want to say, go Huskies!’ ” said Kelly Wallace, a forward from Illinois, with a laugh.
Team IMPACT (Inspire, Motivate, and Play Against Challenges Together) is an immersion program, with participating youngsters getting their own signing day, locker, uniform (Marianne has number 15), and place on the sidelines. In short, they’re fully incorporated into the team.
Wallace said she has dedicated her season to Marianne.
“She’s in a wheelchair, and she’s 15, and obviously that’s a crucial point in a young person’s life,” said Wallace, a 23-year-old graduate student who serves as Northeastern’s campus ambassador for Team IMPACT. “Yet she always has a smile on her face, and she has all these aspirations to do these different things. She truly feels like she’s part of our team, and there’s no question about that. There’s not a bad day.”
That’s the idea, said Dan Walsh, who helped launch Team IMPACT and is a former executive director. “Once you explain to these athletes, these college kids, what these young children have been through, the magic is pretty instant,” said Walsh. “It’s a pretty intoxicating thing to be around.”
He said the Team IMPACT model “exposes people, and their character. It gives them an opportunity to show their character. The response, among the athletes and the coaches, has just been overwhelming.”
“For me, the biggest surprise has been how invested these college athletes can be,” said Erin MacNeil, a Team IMPACT case manager. “The kids aren’t put on the back burner. I’ve heard from so many athletes who said that was the most influential experience of their career. That just blew me away.”
Team IMPACT is the brainchild of several close friends, most of whom attended Tufts University together — the list includes Walsh; Dan Kraft, son of Patriots owner Robert Kraft; and Jay Calnan, who provides office space at his construction-management business in Quincy, J. Calnan & Associates .
“The concept itself has been around forever,” said Walsh. His group’s site (www.goteamimpact.org) cites “at least a half-dozen other programs,’’ he said. “Among the oldest is ‘Picking Up Butch’ at Middlebury College. It’s a really simple concept, really powerful. Everybody wins.”
Walsh and his friends began working with a nonprofit specializing in brain-tumor patients, but quickly decided the scope was too limited. The friends raised their first funds out of pocket, and launched the program in 2011 with the St. Anselm’s College hockey team in Manchester, N.H.
Today, Walsh said, Team IMPACT oversees partnerships in about 37 states nationwide, with roughly 12,000 participants (including children, siblings, and athletes) .
The Northeastern women’s ice hockey squad is one of six on the campus with a Team IMPACT child on the roster. Walsh’s alma mater, Tufts, has six. Other local participants include Babson College in Wellesley with seven teams, Harvard University in Cambridge with six, and Bentley University in Waltham with four. Those numbers are in constant flux, as the program looks to match more children with teams.
There is also the heart-breaking reality that some children won’t survive.
“With miracles of modern science, most of these kids will make it,” said Walsh. “But these are life-threatening illnesses, and we probably have as many as 46 different afflictions. We have lost children. We’re finishing up our second full year, and we’ve probably lost eight children. That’s clearly one of the most difficult parts.”
Remarkably, said Walsh, coaches won’t hesitate to bring even a very sick child into their program. References can come from any number of avenues, including medical professionals, social service agencies, schools, and friends. However, the available teams outnumber the participating children.
“One of our biggest challenges is just getting families on board,” said MacNeil. “When we talk to coaches and when we talk to teams, it’s very rare that a team doesn’t want to get involved. It’s a pretty contagious concept. So it’s a situation where we have teams signed up and waiting. . . . We know there are so many kids that could benefit from this, but they just haven’t heard about us yet.”
Even families who know about the program have legitimate questions. “For the parents to trust Team IMPACT, they have to really have the certainty that these athletes and these coaches won’t let them down,” she said. “These kids have faced a lot of loss, a lot of heartbreak, a lot of disappointment, so our job . . . is to make sure these teams get it.”
Joanne Mead, Marianne’s mother, acknowledged there was a leap of faith required of her and her husband, Peter Mahoney. “As a parent of a kid with special needs, sometimes you’re a little hesitant to put your kids in these situations,” said Mead. “You sometimes feel a little protective about them.
“So you sometimes get involved with an organization like this with a little bit of trepidation,” she said. “It’s no small thing. I’m prepared to take her to every game, or get her to places where she wants to meet them and to have them over. I hope, I hope, they hold up their end of the deal. I’m sure they see it as this amazing thing that they’re doing, and they’re really going to help somebody, and they can. I’m sure this team will. But you never really know.”
Mead said those concerns were assuaged on Parents Day this fall, when Marianne was introduced to teammates and their families, and given her jersey and locker. Wallace, Flint, and Peter Roby, Northeastern’s athletic director, spoke.
“I did get a good feeling,” said Mead. “I have all the confidence that this is going to be an amazing experience for my daughter and those young women. It’s just when you go into it, and you don’t know, the best that you can do is cross your fingers, hold your nose, and jump.”
Walsh said the program embraces that. Team IMPACT is not concerned solely with connecting children and teams, he said. They want it to stay involved every step of the way. They advocate drafting siblings, to recognize that the hardships of a single child can impact the whole family. (In Marianne’s case, her two siblings haven’t joined the Huskies.)
For Marianne, a charming and quick-witted teenager, getting her own place in the Husky locker room was a highlight. “I didn’t expect that at first, but then, it was really cool, because I got to interact with the girls,” she said. “These young women are fantastic. I like getting to know them. And after every game, I give them high fives.”
Peter Mahoney said he didn’t have “significant expectations for the program, just because Marianne has participated in several different programs to connect her to the community over the years. They’ve all been great, but they tend to be a passing connection.
“We thought she’d just be part of the team by extension, but they’ve deeply integrated her into the team and took her under their collective wing. The most impressive thing to me is how I’ve learned so much about these girls, and how impressive these young women are.
“There is really a special camaraderie that comes with being part of a team, and that is just a unique thing,” Peter Mahoney said. “That really special feeling is not something that everyone has the opportunity to have, and it’s very much what Marianne feels as part of this. She truly sees herself as a Husky, and part of this team.”