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'People need a light' The personal story behind creating Team IMPACT, pairing sick children with college sports teams

The personal story behind creating Team IMPACT
The personal story behind creating Team IMPACT 04:44

BOSTON - Building a team is Jay Calnan's joy. As a kid growing up in Connecticut, Jay played Pop Warner football and Little League baseball. He played football for Tufts University. And as a businessman, he built his construction company, J Calnan & Associates, on the team concept - forming relationships, pulling together as a group and working toward a goal. He credits sports and the people who invested in him as a child, for the life lessons that still guide him.

"Teamwork, work ethic, discipline, perseverance-you learn leadership skills, fellowship skills... When you think about where they came from, it wasn't a big corporation or the government," Calnan said. "It was volunteers like my coaches and small little businesses... That's your community. And my community, I'm sure they knew they were making an investment."

Jay's younger brother Chris shared his enthusiasm for sports. But Chris would never become an athlete. He was born with a serious medical issue. While most babies are born with a soft skull that hardens over time (while the brain grows), Chris' skull was fully formed. The surgery he had as a child-to remove his skull and replace it with a plastic plate-was exceedingly rare. It was successful. But Chris was never able to play sports. Any contact was too risky. Yet he was the ultimate sports fan. 

"He would go to a ballgame and keep stats on every player there," Jay remembers. "He would play games in his room around sports with baseball trading cards as a kid. He was so into sports!"

Jay and his sister were athletes. When the Calnan family moved from house to house, their teams became a place of stability. Their father sold insurance. But Jay says they didn't have the kind of insurance that would protect a family from the cost of Chris' medical needs. The family sold their "starter home" and moved to a rental property before relocating several more times within Bristol.

"My rock and my anchor were sports," Jay explained. His address changed, but not his teammates and coaches. "That became my constant. That became my safe haven where I could go and feel like I belong permanently."

Later in life, Jay would reflect on how lucky he was to play sports when his brother couldn't. Fortunately, Chris eventually experienced what it meant to be a teammate when the AA Bristol Red Sox made him the bat boy. A team staffer saw him in the stands one night and offered him the opportunity. It was a life-changing invitation. 

"He had-pretty much-all the experiences that I had playing sports by being the bat boy. I mean, at the end of the day, you want to feel a sense of accomplishment and you want to feel a sense of belonging."

Chris Calnan died at 21 in a car accident - a painful loss that raised deep questions for Jay. Why, after everything Chris has endured, did his life end that way? What was it all about? Jay knew that just getting up every day was an opportunity that his brother no longer had. 

"I began to have a greater appreciation for what I had been given by my community which put an emphasis on-what am I doing with that gift?"

He remembered the coaches who had worked with him, the small businesses that had contributed to uniforms and ballpark signs instead of pocketing more profits. As his Quincy-based construction business grew, he knew that financial gain alone would never be his sole measure of success. He wanted to give back. But how? He cites the philanthropists he admired - Jack Connors, Rob Griffin, the late Myra Kraft - as role models in giving back. 

"People need a light," he said, smiling. 

After seeing firsthand a series on experiences, years apart, involving children or teenagers who found connection through sports teams (even when those children couldn't actually play) he came up with an idea. What if, with a group of friends, there were a way to leverage their networks to find children living with chronic or life-threatening illnesses and find college athletic teams with which to pair them? The kids would have a genuine role with the team - going to games, watching practices, and even joining the players in the locker room.

As the relationship grew, he imagined that the child and his or her family would enjoy the experience, support and encouragement. The first person he approached with the idea for what would become Team IMPACT was his friend and fellow Tufts alum Dan Kraft.

"It's a really hard mission to argue with," Kraft said. "I was hooked right away." 

A father of three children, Kraft could see the benefit Team IMPACT could offer to the young patients and their families. 

"To me, the most gratifying thing is just to see the tangible difference it makes in everyone's life," Kraft said.

In 2011, Jay and Dan invited a handful of friends and former classmates to join them in launching Team IMPACT. They seeded the program with personal donations and began to leverage their relationships to communicate their vision with Boston-area hospitals. 

The response was overwhelmingly positive.

A dozen years later, more than 2,600 children have taken part in Team IMPACT. Teams on 743 college campuses are taking part in all 50 states. The "draft day" experience features a signing ceremony and celebration.

One of the most recent matches was made official when nine-year-old Parker Watson officially joined the Harvard men's hockey team. Parker endured three years of leukemia treatment as a young child. Sitting next to Parker, his mom Michelle told a room packed with Crimson players that when her son was "in the thick of it" he received a lot of perks and privileges. She thanked head coach Ted Donato, the players, and Team IMPACT for a different kind of experience. 

"It's not about getting something, but being a part of something," she said. 

Parker described the experience as "thrilling" explaining, "It's gonna change my life."

The experience also changes the athletes' lives. Jay says he could not have imagined how much they would benefit from their relationship with a boy or girl facing medical challenges. It is a chance to see that there is more to life than athletic and academic success. That lesson hit home when Jay's son Jake, a former John's Hopkins University lacrosse player, tore his Achilles tendon. The season-ending injury was devastating. But at the same time that Jake was coping with profound disappointment, the team "drafted" a new Team IMPACT teammate, Kyle Skakle.

"An eight-year-old boy with cerebral palsy; Kyle's in a wheelchair. Yet if you met this kid - ear to ear smile. He's got the greatest attitude of any kid I've ever met," Jay Calnan said. "His belly laugh is super infectious. And him and my son Jake became best friends."

At Team IMPACT's 2022 fundraising gala, Jake told the crowd that, after four years of college, his greatest asset was his friendship with Kyle and Kyle's family. Jay says what Jake and other athletes learn from children in the program is perspective; how easy it is to take good health, good fortune, and an enormous support system for granted. Developing a relationship with a child who rises to his or her challenges every day is a reminder and a way to build empathy. 

Team IMPACT's goal now is to match a sick child with every college sports team in the country. It's also hoping to build relationships with hospitals all over the country like those it has established with hospitals in Greater Boston.

Looking back at Team IMPACT's origins, Jay chuckles, "It's pretty amazing where we are today when you look around and see where we were - literally a handful of knuckleheads saying, 'What if we did this?' A great group of people with a super level of passion... It's been incredibly rewarding."

With hundreds of new recruits joining Team IMPACT this year, he knows that Chris would be proud. The founding of Team IMPACT was years in the making and worth every challenge. "I'm a big believer in throwing the rock in the pond and starting a ripple," he said. "I was somewhat struck by how hard it is to be involved in a team starting a non-profit... But if it's meaningful to you, it's worthwhile. And nothing worthwhile is easy. Nothing." 

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