Eight-year-old joins volleyball team as part of bonding program

Media Credit: File Photo by Ethan Stoler

Head volleyball coach Sarah Bernson said the team has spent time virtually with Gianna, an 8-year-old battling an autoimmune disorder, over Zoom.

Volleyball signed on an 8-year-old as part of a bonding program that pairs college teams with children battling medical challenges, according to a release last month.

Gianna, whose last name is not mentioned in the release, and the volleyball team connected through Team Impact, a Boston-based organization that couples children undergoing medical challenges with college athletic programs for two years. The release states that Gianna is tackling Juvenile Dermatomyositis, an autoimmune disease that affects skin, muscle and blood vessels.

Junior setter Lauren LaBeck said in the release that Giana has been a “positive light” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“She is an amazing, funny and smart little girl who puts a smile on everyone’s face,” LaBeck said in the release. “The team and I can’t wait to meet her in person when the time is right!”

Head coach Sarah Bernson said in an interview that the squad was approached by the athletic department’s community service staff to work with Team Impact, and the decision “just made sense.”

“I also know some coaches around the NCAA in volleyball that are also doing it, and it’s just been a lot of positive feedback,” Bernson said.

The Colonials are the second squad to work with the organization. Women’s basketball added 10-year-old Mikaylah Poole to the squad last year. Players and athletic department staff participated in a virtual 5K with Poole late last month.

Bernson added that the team spent about six weeks training, attending an orientation and forming a leadership team to prepare for Gianna. She said the leadership team includes sophomore middle blocker Addie Feek, senior middle blocker Callie Fauntleroy, junior libero Bella Bowman and senior libero Sydney Welch.

Over the summer, the Atlantic 10 postponed all fall competition until the spring semester. As a result, Gianna will need to wait a few months before joining the team in person and attending games.

“It’s been certainly difficult because we’re partnered with a wonderful, bright 8-year-old and physical interaction is what she wants more than anything,” Bernson said. “That’s been the tough part, but we are really kicking butt in the virtual meetings.”

She said the team has been spending time with Gianna virtually over Zoom, drawing, talking about movies and checking in about what’s going on in her life. Bernson added that Gianna introduced the team to her cockatoo.

Bernson said the squad met with Gianna in waves with a few players hopping on a call at one time, and once she met every player in a small group setting, the whole team joined her for a call. The squad has since transitioned back to small group meetings to have more interaction with Gianna and to make her feel more comfortable, Bernson said.

Gianna met each player, coach and members of volleyball’s support staff, like strength and conditioning coach Simone Morin and athletic trainer Rebecca Barron.

“We really want her to know and feel part of our program in regards to everybody that is part of our organization,” Bernson said.

Bernson said Gianna has taught the team to find the “joy in little things,” whether that be a Disney movie or a program on Animal Planet.

“It brings us back to ourselves as little kids, and we enjoy it,” Bernson said. “You’re never too old to revisit it or experience it for the first time.”

Junior outside hitter Paz Dozie-Nnamah called Gianna “one-of-a-kind,” adding that she can’t wait to bond more with Gianna.

“One would think that it’d be difficult forming a relationship with a child via Zoom calls, but Gigi has been a doll,” Dozie-Nnamah said in the release. “She is so intelligent with such a bubbly personality. You can tell she has a genuine passion for taking care of others, especially animals, which is impressive to see at her age.”

Belle Long contributed reporting.

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