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Good Sports

When Joli Talusan Vega was just two years old, she lost her right eye to a rare form of cancer. But that hasn’t stopped her from enjoying soccer and other sports.

In fact, Vega, who lives in Brockton, Massachusetts, joined the Tufts women’s soccer team as an honorary member in the fall of 2011, at the age of eight. Since then, she has been a regular at games, wearing the official blue-and-white jersey and cheering on her teammates.

“She thinks we’re these superstars,” says Phoebe Hanley, A13, a Tufts goalie and one of the team’s three tri-captains. “We think she’s a superstar. It brings everybody up on game day.”

The match between Vega, who is now cancer-free, and the Tufts team is one of many made by Team IMPACT, a nonprofit based in Quincy, Massachusetts, that pairs children facing life-threatening or chronic illnesses with college athletic teams.

“It’s a rich fusion between Make-A-Wish and the Big Brothers and Big Sisters,” says Dan Walsh, A87, a founding board member who serves, without pay, as Team IMPACT’s executive director—he’s also chairman of the Stowe Group, a business and IT consulting firm. “We give a child who is isolated, going through treatment, a chance to hang out and be a kid again with a team of older brothers or sisters.”

The concept of matching kids facing adversity with sports teams isn’t new, but Walsh and the others who launched Team IMPACT in 2011 are helping to popularize it. Pooling donations, they provided the startup capital for the organization’s first 18 months. Their inaugural fundraiser, held last fall, brought in more than $600,000, which Walsh says will allow them to add staff and expand their reach. Eventually, they plan to go national.

Team IMPACT has strong Tufts roots: five of its seven founding board members are Jumbos. Two key players, Jay Calnan, E87, and Dan Kraft, A87, met in a child study class their freshman year.

“It’s fulfilling for me to be involved” with Team IMPACT, says Kraft, a Tufts trustee emeritus and athletics advisor, and president of the international division of The Kraft Group, which owns the New England Patriots. “When kids get these horrific illnesses and are plucked from their routines, they lose social connections. The relationships they make through Team IMPACT restore some normalcy to their lives and allow them to form bonds that they may be missing out on elsewhere.”

The other Tufts alumni founders besides Kraft, Calnan, and Walsh are Kris Herman, J86, AG90, the head softball coach and senior women’s sports administrator at Williams College and a former longtime coach at Tufts, and Robert Tishman, A86, cofounder of Lightkeeper LLC, a company that creates software tools for investment professionals.

Sports teams see the value of Team IMPACT and are eager to participate, says Calnan, a Tufts athletics advisor and CEO of the construction firm J. Calnan & Associates Inc. “We have 83 colleges and universities participating now, with over 150 kids. We’re trying to create more awareness of this opportunity so we can connect with more children in need.”