If you’ve been following the Vassar College women’s lacrosse team over the last few years, you may have noticed one member of the Brewers’ team that’s just a little shorter and younger than the rest. Sometimes you might spy her in the middle of the team’s pre-game huddle, standing with Head Coach Judy Finerghty and welcoming the opponent’s starters or even lining up and shaking hands with the rest of her team at the end of a game. The littlest Brewer, Miss Grace Leva, along with her parents, Fran and Frank, have been a crucial part of the women’s success over the last 6 years.
Grace’s friendship and ‘adoption’ into the team actually began nearby, in Hopewell Junction, just a hop, skip and a jump away from Vassar. At the age of nine, in 2004, Jaclyn Murphy was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Jaclyn, through her for mer coach, was set up with the Northwestern University Women’s Lacrosse team. That year, the young Murphy helped inspire her team to finish with a perfect season and win their first NCAA national championship in 64 years. The next year, Jaclyn asked her father to help other children with cancer to ‘get a team.’ Today, Jaclyn is a senior at Marist.
Finerghty explained the Foundation’s goal and how her team became involved. “We wanted to get involved in something lasting and meaningful [so] we signed up [with Friends of Jaclyn] and were put on a waitlist for almost two years before we received our pairing with Grace. The intent [of Friends of Jaclyn] is for the team to surround the[ir] child with love and support. At this point the organization has connected over 600 children with college and high school teams from many sports. [They are] now reaching out to connect children with other diseases, not just cancer, to athletic teams, music groups and other organizations.”
Senior standout Isabelle Goldstein explained why she finds the Foundation’s mission so important. “It’s a simple idea really. Teams spread the love, so why not share it with those who need it the most? It’s about positivity. Our team is a support system, and we offer a resource that otherwise would go untapped.”
Goldstein also finds that the Foundation’s mission aligns with her team’s philosophy. “Our team motto is ‘always take care of your girls.’ Above all else, we seek to generate positivity. We look outside of ourselves [and] our own interest and think about the people around us. That includes Grace, who is such an important member of our team.”
Finerghty also emphasized the impact her team’s relationship with Leva has had beyond their four years here. “Grace has actually been around the program longer than any of our current players, so she is a nice connection to our alumni as well. Some of them continue to stay in touch with her, sending her postcards from their travels around the world and sending messages. Grace came to our alumni game this fall and reconnected with some of those graduates that she hasn’t seen in a couple of years.”
This year, Vassar Athletics has two more teams partnered with Friends of Jaclyn thanks to Senior men’s rugby player, John Winton. This year both the men and women’s teams have ‘adopted’ a child. Winton’s father went to high school with the Murphy family and Winton himself worked for a member of the Murphy family. While he doesn’t know Jaclyn or her father, the founder, he has a strong connection to the organization.
Winton explained his connection to the foundation through both the Murphy family and the foundation’s overall mission. “[I] was always aware of the charity through the involvement of the rest of the Murphy family as well as segments of the charity on HBO…my life has been greatly impacted by cancer [and] I thought that the things that [Friends of Jaclyn] was doing for the quality of life of these children with different illnesses was really important and was excited at the opportunity to help in some small way…what’s most valuable for me is that [they focus] purely on quality of life for these kids and their families. The time spent with the team allows these families to get away from the bad hand of cards that they’ve been dealt, if only for a few hours at a time. Childhood illnesses can be incredibly hard to cope with, and [they] makes sure that families have a support system to lean on during some truly hard times.”
Speaking of hard times, Finerghty explained how far Grace has come since she’s had the chance to get to know the Leva family. “We were lucky enough to be paired with Grace when she was six years old. She wasn’t healthy enough for us to actually meet her face to face at that point, as she was still recovering from surgery, radiation and chemo, but we did get to have an ‘adoption’ ceremony the following spring after she turned seven. She was pretty much wheelchair or stroller-bound at that point, but that was the start of our relationship with her. We have continued to have her along as part of our team ever since. She turns 12 this December and she is doing very well as she is attending regular school, working with Physical and Occupational therapists, and recently she began dance lessons!”
Goldstein too has seen Grace improve so much throughout her time at Vassar. “By the time I came to the team we, as a lacrosse team, had already been paired with Grace for a few years…It’s been amazing to get to see our girl, Grace, grow up and come out of her shell over the years…She’s grown so much since I was a freshman. Three years ago, we didn’t get to see her as much, because she wasn’t as healthy. Even after cancer left her system, she continued to have surgery after surgery and it really affected her development. Now, she is six years cancer free. She talks with us more than ever!”
According to Finerghty too, Leva’s strength has had a profound impact on her and her program beyond how they perform on the field and has helped break the Vassar bubble in a way. “Off the top of my head I can think of at least three surgeries that Grace has undergone in the past year and a half to repair damage caused by the brain tumor that she once had. Seeing her tough it out through those procedures and the healing process without ever complaining, is certainly a life lesson for all of us. She also sparks a sense of responsibility in all of us, because like it or not, cancer is a part of our world. She has compelled many of us to help raise awareness of pediatric brain tumors (and other diseases), to raise funds, and even for some of our players and alumni to pursue pediatrics or oncology in their medical studies.”
For Winton and the rugby teams, they’ve spent a lot of time getting to know their adoptees and their families and the experience has been incredibly positive. “We’ve been paired with the Panama family of Hopewell Junction, about 15 minutes away from Vassar. Camille, the youngest, has Down syndrome, and Steven, who is 21, [has] autism. They’ve both struggled making friends and finding a group to belong to in school, so their parents signed the kids up in hopes of being able to find a group of people with which they could feel comfortable… the experience has put a lot of things into perspective for the team. We’re all incredibly lucky to be healthy and playing rugby at Vassar. It’s important for us to see that not everyone has that privilege, and that the least we can do is try and help a family that has so much to go through.”
Though he has been profoundly affected for the better by his team’s involvement, Winton seemed to be most excited by how the teams been able to support the Panamas. “I think what’s most important is that the team or organization feels a strong bond within itself, so that they are able to extend that bond to their adoptees. Athletics and sports teams certainly encourage that, but it’s not exclusive to athletics. The rugby team specifically was uniquely suited to match with Camille and Steven because of our co-ed program with both teams operating very closely with one another. Having the men’s and women’s team work so closely together allowed Vassar Rugby as a whole to adopt both Camille and Steven, something that I think is valuable for their family.”
Goldstein too both has appreciated the effects Grace has had on her as well as the team’s been able to have on the Levas. “It gives us a good perspective on how lucky we are to be able to be at Vassar and play the sport we love. We share a lot of love as a team, and it’s great to see the positive impact we can make by just sharing that positivity with our friend, Grace.” Finerghty added, “She reminds us to appreciate our good health and to enjoy and to make the most of every moment… she helps inspire the team …She is our special little Brewer!”