Even casual sports fans know that college athletics are a big deal. But by their very nature, they offer little access for people with disabilities. Unless you’re like ten-year-old Drew FitzGerald of Cleveland, Ohio.
Thanks to a relatively new organization called Team IMPACT, Drew’s diagnosis of Angelman syndrome was no barrier to becoming part of college sports. He has been welcomed as an official member of the men’s soccer team at Notre Dame College of South Euclid, Ohio.
Drew and his family couldn’t be more excited about it.
Drew’s parents, Suzie and Brian, heard about Team IMPACT from friends who have two children with cerebral palsy, and they saw it as a great opportunity for their son. Team IMPACT matches children with disabilities to college teams seeking the chance to help kids become part of something bigger than themselves—something to help them through the challenges they face daily.
“Getting involved was very easy,” said Suzie FitzGerald. “The online application was easy to fill out. Team IMPACT really tries hard to find the best fit for each child, including geographical proximity, so that can often take some time. But it was not a lot of work at all.”
After the match was found at nearby Notre Dame College, Drew was treated as a star recruit and was welcomed to the soccer team with as much fanfare as a prized, big-time recruit
“They made a big deal out of the ‘signing,’” said Suzie. “The ceremony was in the college’s student center. They had the athletic director and president of the college there. All the coaches and players were there. We had Drew’s grandparents and cousins come, too. College officials gave speeches about how excited they were about this. They even had a letter of intent for Drew to sign. And they gave him a jersey with his name and number on it. The college even put out a press release about it.” Drew’s younger brother Peter, age eight, was just as excited about it as Drew himself, Suzie said.
Drew’s tenth birthday was also cause for a team celebration. His birthday coincided with a home soccer match, said Suzie. “The stadium announcer introduced Drew as part of the team, and he went out on the field for the coin toss with the captains. It was great.”
There was a special birthday celebration following the game, too. “The guys have been fantastic,” Suzie said. “It’s a really nice group of guys, and Drew was going crazy at his birthday celebration.”
Although Drew’s association with the team began just this past fall and the soccer season ended shortly after that, he and his family already feel very involved with the team and look forward to all that lies ahead.
Team IMPACT puts great importance on long-term associations between the teams and the children. As the organization’s website puts it, “Team IMPACT children are drafted onto the team and become an official member of the team from Draft Day through to Graduation. The child joins the athletic team and the student athletes join the child’s support team. The child gains great strength, camaraderie and support and the student athletes are taught lessons about courage, resiliency and life perspective that they can’t learn in a classroom.”
Founded just four year ago, Team IMPACT already counts more than 800 children and over 300 colleges among its ranks. Participating schools run the gamut, with large colleges such as the University of Florida and Penn State as well as smaller schools such as St. Olaf College of Minnesota, and of course, Notre Dame College.
The entire FitzGerald family is grateful to both Team IMPACT and Notre Dame College. The family has also been a force in the Angelman syndrome community. They host the annual Blarney Cup, which has raised significant funds for AS research through the Angelman Syndrome Foundation.
“Team IMPACT has just been fantastic, and so has Notre Dame College,” Suzie said. “The captain of the team said this is really going to be great for the team because many of them don’t have the chance to get involved with kids or adults with disabilities. It was really nice to hear him say that.”
It’s been a win-win situation for everyone involved. The FitzGerald family is looking forward to even better things to come. Drew is now an official Notre Dame College Falcon, and his spirits are soaring. The team has become a true winner because of it. And so has Drew.
For more information about Team IMPACT, visit the organization’s website, http://www.goteamimpact.org/.