As a little girl, Marianne Mahoney would tag along to sports arenas to cheer on her older brother’s hockey games. But when she entered Northeastern University’s Matthews Arena last Saturday, she was the one receiving the applause.
Mahoney, a 14-year-old Newton resident who has spina bifida, was drafted onto Northeastern’s women’s ice hockey team as a part of a program run by Team IMPACT, a Boston-based non-profit organization that matches children who face life-threatening and chronic illnesses with college athletic teams. More than 80 people looked on as the teenager, who has used a wheelchair all her life, signed a ‘letter of intent’ making her an honorary team player and the newest member of Northeastern’s athletic community.
Mahoney, who is the fifth child to be matched with an NU team through Team IMPACT, said she was excited to be part of the team.
“I’m looking forward to meeting new people,” she said. “I’m going to wear my new jersey a lot.”
Kelly Wallace, president of NU’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and a forward on the team, said the team’s goal is “to make [Mahoney] feel as welcome as we can.” She said the women’s hockey team had been waiting two years for a match with Team IMPACT.
“When we’re out there in the third period and we’re tired, [Mahoney’s] going to be the one that pushes us through because of her strength and her determination and her courage,” said Wallace, who is a campus ambassador for Team IMPACT.
Mahoney’s father, Peter, said the connection to the team was a boost for his daughter, who suffers from myelomeningocele, the most severe form of spina bifida.
“The biggest thing is [for Marianne] to gain a set of relationships with women who are inspiring to her, and who can set a great example for the kind of adult we want her to be,” he said.
In a speech Saturday, Wallace thanked Mahoney for choosing NU and promised her positive experiences, lasting friendships and a lifelong relationship with the team.
“We are excited not only about what we’ll do to help you grow as a person, but also how much you will help us become better adults, too,” she said.
A contract created by the team has stipulations ranging from Mahoney wearing her No. 15 jersey on game days, to her singing along to Beyoncé in the locker room before games. In return, the team members promise to act as role models to Mahoney, to help her enjoy her triumphs and face her fears, and to be a positive presence, on and off of the ice.
“We will always look at life in positive ways because the glass is always half full,” Wallace said.
NU Athletic Director Peter Roby, who worked with Wallace in forging Northeastern’s partnership with Team IMPACT, commended the team members on their generosity.
“There’s no amount of games that we could win that will ever substitute for the type of character that’s on display, and the type of compassion and empathy that’s apparent in these young women,” he said.
He fought back tears as he continued.
“It is a really proud day.”
Ann Doherty, a third-year student who plays defense for the team, said working with Team IMPACT has inspired her to become more involved with community service on campus. She recently joined the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
“I hope that people see Marianne and realize how lucky they are to be not just playing hockey, but walking,” Doherty said. “I hope it helps us cherish what we have at Northeastern a bit more.”
Wallace said the experience of working with Team IMPACT has been a lesson in gratitude.
“A lot of these kids are battling cancer or other life-threatening diseases, and when they come to the rink or field, that’s all they think about. They don’t think about how they might not live for much longer, or ever walk again,” she said.
She added, “It’s not often that you can change someone’s life.”
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.