Athletic teams at the University of Hartford pride themselves on signing recruits who are people of high character, people who know how to battle through adversity, and who make the players around them better. Five new recruits are already having a huge impact on their respective teams, and began doing so from the minute they signed their Letters of Intent to join the Hawks.
These recruits — Thomas Hastings, a seven-year-old boy from Windsor who signed with the Hawks baseball team; Bryson Kelly, 10, of Rocky Hill who signed with the men’s soccer team; four-year old Gavin Morris of Manchester who signed with the men’s basketball team; six-year-old Zoe Brown of Bristol who signed with the women’s basketball team; and Ian Woodward, 14, from Simsbury, who signed with the men’s lacrosse team — all joined the University through the Athletics Department’s partnership with Team IMPACT, a Massachusetts-based program that pairs children with life threatening illnesses or life-altering chronic conditions with college athletic teams.
Having five young people partnered with five of its athletics teams marks the University of Hartford as “one of the most-involved athletics programs in the country,” says Erin MacNeil, a regional manager with Team IMPACT. Nationally, Team IMPACT has matched about 580 young people with a college team.
“To have five teams in one athletics department making this commitment is incredible,” said University of Hartford Director of Athletics Anton Goff, who noted that the first two signings took place before he began his tenure here. “This really says a lot about our coaches, our teams, and our department. It shows how much we care about our community. This kind of personal, ongoing relationship between our teams and these young people and their families puts a face on our community service commitment,” he said.
Although greatly beneficial for the young people, these matches may actually be more meaningful to the student–athletes. “I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am to have Gavin join our group,” wrote Taylor Dyson, a junior guard on the Hawks men’s basketball team, in a letter to the Morris family. “We admire the strength and toughness of Gavin and as much as we expect him to learn a thing or two from us, it will be the team that will also learn a lot from him.”
Early in 2014, Gavin was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), a cancer of the white blood cells. After starting inpatient treatment upon diagnosis, Gavin now goes to the hospital weekly for chemotherapy and blood work and will continue to do so for two more years.
“As a Hartford Hawk, we pride ourselves on pushing through adversity, being there for each other on and off the court, and striving for a championship every day," said women's basketball junior guard Katelyn Skinner. “Zoe is a great reflection of the spirit, strength, and character we need to be successful.”
About two years ago, Zoe was diagnosed with Opsoclonus Myoclonus Syndrome (OMS), a rare disease in which a virus attacks the immune system and brain.
“Having the opportunity to support Zoe and her family is a very humbling experience,” said Hawks women’s basketball head coach Jennifer Rizzotti. “The strength, courage and fight that Zoe is demonstrating on a daily basis will be a source of inspiration for our program to live each day to its fullest and not take anything for granted.”
See an NBC Connecticut report on Zoe’s first day with the Hawks.
The University of Hartford’s connection to the Team IMPACT program began in the spring of 2013 when the baseball team connected with Thomas Hastings, who was diagnosed when he was a year old with muscular dystrophy, a disorder in which muscles get weaker with age and for which there is no cure.
“When he first started playing T-ball, he was at the same skill level with the other kids," Thomas’ father, Brad, told the Hartford Courant in Oct. 2013, when Thomas partnered with the Hawks baseball team. “As he’s gotten older, his friends have gone off to more competitive teams and he's lost out on that opportunity.
“Now [with Hartford], he’s integrated with a team. He gets that experience, physically and psychologically, to be part of the real team,” said Brad Hastings. “He talks about the guys. He looks forward to seeing them. They are his teammates. It’s an experience he can't get any other way.”
The Hartford men’s soccer team followed in the summer of 2013 with signing Bryson Kelly, who has mitochondrial disorder (in which food is not converted to energy for the body and the person affected is easily fatigued). Before being matched with the Hawks, “his brother and sister [would] go off to their different activities and he would say to me, 'What's my activity?’” Bryson's mom, Tyyne Kelly told the Hartford Courant also in Oct. 2013. “It breaks your heart. I'd tell him, ‘You’re going to the occupational therapist.’”
That's definitely not as fun as going to hang out with soccer guys. “The kindest thing I’ve ever seen was 11 guys coming to our house for [Bryson’s] 10th birthday,” Tyyne Kelly said. “What college guys want to hang out with a 10-year-old on a Saturday afternoon? They were so sweet. It was the first time he wanted to have a friend at his birthday party to show his friend his teammates.”
The fifth member of this special recruiting class is 14-year old Ian Woodward, a lacrosse enthusiast who joined the Hawks men’s lacrosse team this fall. Ian developed Hydrocephalus when he was two months old after recovering from E. Coli Meningitis when he was just days old. Hydrocephalus is an incurable illness that is treated with a shunt that helps drain cerebral spinal fluid from the ventricles in his brain to his stomach. Ian has endured 36 neurosurgeries to help maintain the shunt.
In a letter to Coach Peter Lawrence and the lacrosse team, Ian’s mom, Susan Woodward, wrote, “It has been many years since Ian played a team sport, and he just started to believe that he might be able to play lacrosse again next spring. Our family is so excited to meet you.”
“We couldn't be more excited for Ian and his family to be joining the Hartford lacrosse family,” said Lawrence. “Partnering with Team IMPACT and having the opportunity to support Ian will be an inspiration for our program.”
"When we match these kids with their teams, these kids have already gone through so much and the student-athletes take away so much from seeing the adversities that these young people are fighting through," MacNeil of Team IMPACT concluded..
Read the Hartford Courant story.