Caring for the vulnerable and putting someone else’s well-being before our own are core tenets of our Catholic faith. Indeed, St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.”
A Notre Dame lacrosse student lives that teaching every day, and now through his actions other athletes can as well. As a result, dozens of sick children and their families will feel some of the burden of that illness lifted by these amazing acts of kindness.
It all started with a devastating injury to Maxim Manyak during his first practice with the team. A torn ACL sidelined him for the entire season, but he took the despair he felt and decided to channel it into something good.
Elsewhere in South Bend, Indiana—near Notre Dame—a 10-year-old boy named Ian McMillen was fighting his own battle. Doctors had just diagnosed him with leukemia.
Wanting to reach out and help sick children, Maxim found a program called Fighting Irish Fight for Life that pairs chronically ill children with athletic teams. According to the ND site, “The teams host Christmas parties, invite the children to campus for sporting events, and serve as an extended support system.”
Maxim loved the idea of making a difference in a child’s life, so he volunteered to head up the team’s involvement. The lacrosse team was paired with Ian, and Maxim eagerly began preparing special events with him. But then COVID paralyzed the world, and Maxim and Ian had to put all plans on hold because Ian was immunocompromised and could not risk exposure to any germs. Understanding that Ian felt sad and lonely because of the isolation of the lockdowns, Maxim sent him a video to cheer him up. It did. So he started sending videos more regularly and asked his teammates to do the same.
Ian began sending videos back, and the whole team would watch them together. This became a fantastic way for this isolated little boy to feel a connection to the outside world.
Then one day Ian’s father asked if the team could create something special to help Ian get through an upcoming spinal tap. So Maxim compiled clips of his teammates, set them to music, and sent the video to Ian’s dad.
Little did Maxim know the impact this would have. It wasn’t long before he received a tearful call from Ian’s nurse explaining how much she and Ian’s care team were touched by the video, and they asked if the lacrosse team would be willing to create videos for other kids going through similar challenges.
It was then that Maxim began to understand the difference he was making not only in Ian’s life, but in the lives of those around him. He stated, “That [the videos] just gives him a much better quality of care. His parents aren’t as worried; they’re not as stressed. It gives them two minutes off. His siblings are more excited. His care staff, the hospital nurses, doctors—he’s easier to deal with when he’s smiling. And for them, not all the burden’s on them or on his parents. We’re sharing the wealth a little bit. And so I just realized that that was super impactful.”
So with help from the university’s IDEA Center, Pediatric Pep Talk was born. According to the site, Pediatric Pep Talk is an “app-based platform that can connect critically ill children with college athletes from across the country. All 26 varsity teams and more than 800 athletes from Notre Dame are involved, and the app has since spread to schools including Northwestern, Hofstra, USC, Ohio State, and Arkansas.”
Maxim explains, “Our mantra at Pediatric Pep Talk is that a smile a day keeps the doctor away. That started because when we first sent that first video to Ian, we were told that ‘Max, you put a smile on Ian’s face.’ So now everything we do at Pediatric Pep Talk is in terms of smiles. . . . It’s not how many kids we impact, how many families we help—it’s how many smiles we can put on their faces.”
In the first year, Pediatric Pep Talk served five kids. The number grew to 16 the second year and is expected to reach almost 100 in its third year.
Ian is now cancer free and explains how much the videos meant to him, saying, “These people actually cared about me and wanted to help me.”
Maxim reflects, “It was just incredible for him to know that there are a bunch of random college dudes that absolutely had his back. It was a whole new family for him, a whole new brotherhood.”
Indeed, we are all one human family. And as such, we must take care of each other and walk with our brothers and sisters through their trials and sufferings. This is how we build a culture that respects all people and that teaches future generations to love and protect the vulnerable.
If we allow God to work with us as we suffer, we can always make something good come of it. Maxim is a perfect example of creating something good from something devastating.
When we take the time to show others that they matter, to walk with them in their suffering, and to put their wants and needs before ours, we are living as Christ taught, and we can be assured that the difference we make will have a far greater impact than we could have ever imagined.
This article first appeared in The Stream at stream.org/apostle-pauls-words-exemplify-pediatric-pep-talks-brightening-lives-of-sick-children.