Last fall, women’s soccer welcomed a new member—actually, two new members—to its team. They are on the young side, not even out of elementary school yet. Sisters Ava and Sofia Girolimetti, daughters of Allison ’97 and Marc Girolimetti ’96, joined women’s soccer through Team Impact, a nonprofit that places children with life-threatening and chronic illnesses on collegiate teams.
Ava, now 8, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in May 2016 and sidelined from her favorite sport. But Ava isn’t the only one in her family who loves soccer. Older sister Sofia, now 11 and best friend to Ava, is equally passionate. So women’s soccer welcomed them both.
Team Impact believes that by becoming part of a team, children benefit from the resulting bonds, support, and friendships, and that through the experience, team members learn about such life lessons as courage and resiliency. Babson Athletics already had a longtime relationship with Team Impact. Softball was one of the original teams to work with the program when it was founded in 2011, says Mary Welker, chapter director, New England, for Team Impact. Over the years, 13 Babson teams have brought children into their folds.
Three years ago, men’s soccer welcomed then 4-year-old Will McHugh, affectionately nicknamed “Wild Will” by his father. Will was diagnosed as an infant with lissencephaly, a rare brain malformation that has left him nonverbal and bound to a wheelchair. But that hasn’t kept Will from expressing his delight when he sees the soccer team. “When he comes to our games and is around us, you can definitely sense the excitement in him,” says Joey McWeeney ’17, MS’17, who has formed a close bond with Will and his family.
The McHugh family tries to come to all of the team’s games, where Will is introduced as one of the players. Will’s father coaches a soccer team, and players have helped with his clinics. Team members also have gone to the McHughs’ for dinner and family events, such as Christmas parties. McWeeney believes the impact on the team has been profound. “Having the McHughs as a role model changed the way we viewed each other. Will has to go through a lot of struggles, and looking at them and saying, OK, if these people can keep coming back and showing up to support us, we can work through it and be here for each other. We’ve been there for each other much more than we have been in the past,” says McWeeney. “I don’t think the McHughs will quite understand how much it’s meant to us.”
Women’s soccer player Emma Dineen ’19 expresses similar sentiments about the positive impact on their team since embracing the Girolimetti family. “You come off the bench, and we could be losing, but Ava and Sofia will be there and still want to give you the biggest hug. It’s like the score doesn’t matter,” says Dineen. “At halftime, they’d come over and sit with us, and it changes the team morale. The positive energy that you get from these two little girls, one who is going through a huge hardship and the other there supporting her sister, looking up to us and being so happy—it’s really nice.”
The Girolimetti family came to most of the team’s Saturday games, where Ava was announced as a member of the team. “She’d walk out with us and we’d hold hands, like she was in the starting lineup,” says Dineen. “I would come off the field, and Ava would be behind me spraying me with water and wanting me to hold her hand. And after the game, we have tailgates, and she’d come over and crawl into my lap.”
Team members have gone to Sofia’s soccer practice and dinners with the family. They’ve attended Sofia’s games as well. “We were screaming the whole time,” Dineen says. “Sofia is awesome. You can tell she’s very protective of Ava, but they still are competitive, which is cute. Sofia challenges Ava and doesn’t baby her, which is awesome. You can tell they have such a great bond.”
Head soccer coaches Nellie Pineault, MBA’03, and Jon Anderson ’75, P’04, ’08, ’13, ’13, believe their teams have gained tremendously from the relationships. “In theory, this program is set up to help children who are in need, but in my opinion we get way more out of the relationship,” Pineault says. “Ava’s spirit and perseverance and enthusiasm, and Ava and Sofia’s relationship, and the family’s strength—they’ve brought an incredible example of what family is about, and that’s what our program is all about. It’s been a great relationship.”
Anderson echoes those sentiments. “When you start doing this, the thought is that you are helping the family. But it’s reversed in many respects. This has been just as good for us,” says Anderson. “You look at what the McHugh family is doing, how they’re functioning, and their positive attitude. Let’s face it—in life, it’s learning how to deal with tremendous ups and downs, and without a doubt, this is day to day for them. There is a great deal we are all learning every day from the McHugh family. They are incredible people.”—Donna Coco