Young Siblings Facing Life-Threatening Diseases Become Honorary Panthers
By Daniel Supraner with contributions from Ashley Letendre and Lexi Bettermann
On Feb. 4, 2015, Florida Tech men’s and women’s lacrosse teams hosted a small “draft day” ceremony for local siblings Will and Sasha Bush, initiating them as official team members.
Will was 11 years old, and Sasha was 9. Previously, doctors had diagnosed Will with primary immunodeficiency disease, mitochondrial disease and a Chiari malformation. Sasha was also born with PIDD and mitochondrial disease in addition to episodic ataxia type 2 with familial hemiplegic migraine and a seizure disorder.
None of this mattered to Will and Sasha that February afternoon, because when pen hit paper, they became part of the Panther family.
The Bush siblings’ signing put into motion a movement within the Florida Tech athletics department that has since enriched the lives of several children and their families. In the three years since that initial draft day celebration, seven Florida Tech teams have hosted similar events to sign nine children through Team IMPACT.
Team IMPACT is a national nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts that enhances the lives of children facing life-threatening diseases by drafting them to local college athletics teams, including the Florida Tech Panthers. Children who are part of the program become official teammates for the duration of their treatments and beyond.
Will and Sasha’s mother, Stefani Bush, considers their relationship with
“For our family, being a part of Team IMPACT has given us a slice of normalcy,” Bush said. “We can just be a family and not worry about medical stuff. It is not just a team; it is a lifestyle for my kids.”
Children participating in Team IMPACT bond with their teammates attending practices, getting help with their homework, rooting for them at games and sometimes going on small group outings.
the student-athletes more like a family than just a team.
Unfortunately, not everything is as fun as cheering on the sidelines. Much like a real family, though, teammates are there for the children during the hard times, too.
When Will and Sasha are in the hospital, their teammates message them to see if they need anything. When Sasha’s feeding tube needs to be changed, her teammates are there to help her get through the painful process, even changing the tube themselves to make the difficult experience a little easier on her.
“All but one of her tube changings has been done with the girls on the team,” Bush said. “They would sit by her and calm her down while it was being changed. It’s a symbiotic relationship for sure.”
Florida Tech’s most recent Team IMPACT addition is Anderson “AJ the Tank” Demarest, a 5-year-old with a multi-minicore congenital myopathy who became the swimming team’s first Team IMPACT “draft” in November.
Olivia McKelvey, a junior on the swimming team, looks forward to building a relationship with AJ and his family, including his sister, Braylee, who also loves to visit and cheer on the Panthers.
“As an athlete, I think working with younger kids is really important,” McKelvey said. “I think that, when it comes to AJ, we act as a role model for both him and even his younger sister. AJ and Braylee have only been with us for a short time, yet they already refer to us as their older brothers and sisters, which is heartwarming.”
According to McKelvey, during their mid-season Panther Invitational, AJ cheered on his team and even handed out candy at the snack booth. The team is continually inspired by not only AJ’s actions but also his attitude and ability to always stay positive.
“I think it’s amazing to be able to show younger kids the value of teamwork and support,” McKelvey said. “But when it comes to Team IMPACT, we’re also giving back by being a support system for AJ and his family. That means a lot to us. We look forward to being a part of their lives now and in the future.”
Although every child is different, most children graduate from Team IMPACT after two or three years with their team. A ceremony similar in celebration to draft day, graduation focuses on the children’s accomplishments and the impact they’ve had on their teammates. AJ plans to graduate from Team IMPACT in 2020, at which point he is encouraged to maintain the relationships built through the program as an alumnus.
“Team IMPACT is a great way for the kids to gain social skills and be a part of a sports team,” said Vanessa Rubio, Florida Tech softball player and Team IMPACT on-campus ambassador. “The majority of the Team IMPACT kids drafted at Florida Tech are home-schooled, so they have limited opportunities to make friends in class or on the playground.”
Director of Athletics Bill Jurgens, who has been a fixture in the department for almost 50 years, believes a partnership with Team IMPACT is an incredible opportunity for the teams and student-athletes.
“Student-athletes have busy lives. They go to school, have practice, prepare for games and sometimes work, and they can get overwhelmed with it all,” Jurgens said. “Then you meet these kids and—you have no idea—they are so inspirational. They go through so much every day; it just puts everything in perspective.”
This article was featured in the 2019 Winter Edition of the Florida Tech Magazine. Click below to read the full edition