It’s a condition 15-year-old San Diego resident Angel Rechirei battles every day, sometimes spending full days at a time in a hospital bed.
But thanks to Massachusetts nonprofit Team IMPACT and Point Loma Nazarene University juniors Izzy Turk and Cara Liggins, Rechirei gets to join a college sports team and take part in practices and games for her favorite sport: basketball.
“Angel is a perfect fit for our team,” said Turk, whose been on PLNU’s women’s basketball team the past three years. “Her positive energy is contagious. From the moment she walked into our gym, she’s had a smile on her face.”
“Our team is pretty lighthearted and we’re a close-knit group that really loves being together,” added Liggins. “Angel embodies everything our team stands for and has taught us so much about what it means to truly stay positive.”
Last summer, Turk came across a Penn State news story that detailed the university’s partnership with Team IMPACT, an organization that connects children facing chronic and life-threatening illnesses with college athletic teams across the country. An 11-year-old pediatric patient with muscular dystrophy got matched with the Penn State Altoona men’s basketball team. Turk said she was immediately inspired and quickly applied to the program.
“The PLNU women’s basketball team is a fantastic group of athletes and coaches who have so much to offer their community – not only with their athletic skills but with their empathy and commitment to service as well,” said Emily Berman, Rechirei’s case manager at Team IMPACT. “Our match-up staff knew Angel would be a great fit for their team.”
On Dec. 10, PLNU and Team IMPACT held a “Draft Day” for Rechirei with a press conference, official signing, and special remarks from head coach Lisa Faulkner. Rechirei received a team jersey and PLNU athletics locker as the newest, youngest member of the basketball team. Since the Draft Day, Rechirei has joined in on team practices, attended home games and team dinners. Liggins said Rechirei’s presence on the team has had an even stronger influence than expected.
“Every day we would come to practice as college students going through the same things, but with Angel, we now have an outside perspective we’ve never had before,” said Liggins, who helped Turk pitch the Team IMPACT partnership to Faulkner.
“It’s exciting to watch her come into the gym after being in the hospital for four hours or even all day and just be so happy to be anywhere other than in the hospital. Seeing how enthusiastic she is about life is super inspiring for all of us,” Liggins said.
“We so often forget that healthy bodies are not a blessing given to everybody, and Angel has inspired us with her outlook on that,” added Turk. “She doesn’t let this illness stop her.”
Faulkner said she’s had players many players in the past participate in Big Brother and Big Sister athletic programs as well as PLNU’s annual Special Olympics, but “This is different. Angel is a real member of our team and she will be with us for two years. We’re excited to be a part of her journey.”
Faulkner and Turk both hope other PLNU sports teams — such as the baseball and soccer teams — will also take the same opportunity to partner with Team IMPACT.
“I think it’s cool to use something as powerful as being a part of a team to create a real relationship with somebody,” said Turk. “We’re all just so taken with Angel and if Cara and I weren’t on this team, there’s a chance we never would have met her.”
“Angel is an incredibly resilient girl with a caring and supportive team behind her,” added Berman. “The sky is the limit for all of them.”