Harrisonburg, Va., October 20, 2011-The James Madison women's lacrosse team traveled Friday to Gainesville, Va. for an adoption ceremony with Elle Howdershell, a nine-year-old participant in the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation.
According to Alisa Konishi, Chair of Community Service for the lacrosse team, "Our team began to search for a child through the Friends of Jaclyn program about three years ago. This was something Shelley (our head coach) was very passionate about and she wanted nothing more than to be paired with a child."
Friends of Jaclyn is a New York-based organization that pairs children with pediatric brain tumors and collegiate athletic teams. The athletes build relationships with the children and their parents in order to support a loving environment while the children tackle their illness.
The organization began with the diagnosis of Jaclyn Murphy, a now-14-year-old lacrosse player. While frequenting the hospital for years after she learned of her brain tumor, Jaclyn was encouraged by a lacrosse photo she saw on the wall in her hospital room. The photo pictured Kelly Amonte, the women's lacrosse coach at Northwestern University in Illinois, who happened to be a friend of Jaclyn's lacrosse coach in New York.
The Northwestern team was inspired by Jaclyn's perseverance through her treatments and sent her letters, videos and text messages. Whenever she had a rough day in the hospital, Jaclyn's father, Dennis, contacted the athletes and they called her with encouragement.
As a result of the positive effects on Jaclyn's health from her partnership with the Northwestern team, Jaclyn told her father that other children in the hospital needed their own teams. Since Jaclyn's diagnosis, Friends of Jaclyn has paired over 100 collegiate teams from 17 different sports across the country with children who need encouragement.
After years of contacting hospitals to find a child, the JMU team hit multiple walls. When assistant coach Katie Linnertz joined the lacrosse program last year, she brought her previous experience with Friends of Jaclyn pairings. Linnertz used her connections to match the JMU lacrosse team with Elle Howdershell.
Elle and her siblings Brian and Sydney are triplets and have an older sister, 10-year-old Halle. The Howdershells first learned about Elle's brain tumor four years ago in October 2007 and since then, she has been surpassing all expectations that doctors had of her recovery.
The first time the team met Elle and her family was last year at the CAA semifinal game against William and Mary. The team saw the family again Friday night when they visited the Howdershells at their home for a pizza dinner and Elle's official adoption ceremony.
After dinner with the family, each of the four Howdershell children was specially introduced into the Duke Dog family through a song or poem presented by each of the four classes on the team. The team wanted to include all of the siblings in Elle's adoption ceremony since they will be spending time with the family.
"This past weekend was something magical and really starts to make you appreciate things you have in your life today. Also, it reminds you of how blessed we are as a team and to have a family that supports you," said senior team member Ariel Lane.
To commemorate the evening, a "formal adoption certificate" was created with the help of the team and the family. They created a family tree which featured a picture of Elle and the team in the center, surrounded by each person's thumbprint to create the surrounding leaves on the tree.
"Inviting the Howdershells into our Duke Dog family was an unforgettable experience. Elle brings such joy to everyone around her and reminds us what life is all about," said redshirt junior Konishi.
JMU lacrosse coach Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe reflected, "Our relationship with Elle Howdershell and her family is a reminder to the team to be less selfish, to have a positive attitude toward life's challenges and to appreciate every day. This bond is a constant reminder of how fortunate the girls on our team are. They are talented, healthy and have their whole life ahead of them to fight for whatever it is they want to achieve on the field and in life. We have learned so much from the Howdershell family and thank them for allowing us into their lives."
The lacrosse team is the second team at JMU to foster a relationship with a child via the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation. The baseball team adopted Justin Brown of Haymarket, Va. during the 2010 season.