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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Her second family

Her second family

When fans arrive to watch the Arizona women’s basketball team this season, they might notice a pint-sized member of the team providing support and motivation for her elder teammates.

When fans arrive to watch the Arizona women’s basketball team this season, they might notice a pint-sized member of the team providing support and motivation for her elder teammates.

The new addition: 3-year-old Makayla Smith.

In May 2009, Makayla was diagnosed with a pediatric medulloblastoma, a malignant brain tumor that required immediate surgical removal, and through the nonprofit foundation Friends of Jaclyn, she has found a second family with the women’s basketball team.

Inspired by Jaclyn Murphy, who at 9 years old faced her own battle with cancer, the Friends of Jaclyn foundation provides for children with pediatric brain tumors and their families nationwide since 2005. In doing so, the child is “”adopted”” by a high school or collegiate athletic team and establishes an extended network of friendship and support during the child’s treatment and recovery.

Makayla, her older sister Jordan and their parents were first introduced to the team in August, when they came to visit and play with her new Wildcat family.

The new faces weren’t so easy to comprehend for Makayla when she arrived, however.

“”She dug her face into her mother‘s shoulder,”” assistant coach Sue Darling said. “”I think when she meets new people she’s afraid that they’re going to be more doctors and more nurses that make her hurt, so I think her initial reaction is fear.

“”The kids were very patient with her, they didn’t pressure her, they totally let her come out of her shell, and see that they weren’t going to hurt her and would be nothing but loving and caring toward her.””

This love and support that the players give to Makayla and her family is not a one-way street. The players and coaching staff get as much back from the relationship as they give her.

“”Having that little sister means that we have to always be on our best behavior,”” junior guard Brooke Jackson said. “”She helps us be better people and realize what life is all about, and how life can change at any second.””

This mentor role that the Wildcats have taken on is one of the most important roles they play.

“”Were not here just for basketball, we’re not all about just going out on the court, we want to give back to the community,”” senior forward Amanda Pierson said. “”We’re role models.””

Makayla has brought the team a different perspective, that there are more important things than basketball. It is, after all, just a game.

Darling has had a much more personal impact with what Makayla and her family are dealing with.

In February 2002, Darling was diagnosed with breast cancer, and without the support of her family and friends she said she would not be in the situation she is today. Darling is grateful everyday for the love she has received and is now transferring that love to Makayla and her family.

“”They say that a life-threatening illness is harder on the family than it is on the person itself,”” said Darling, holding back tears. “”So I have a great compassion for what her parents and what her sister are going through.””

At the time of Darling’s diagnoses, she was 41 years old and had already lived a lot of life. Seeing someone who was suffering with the disease at only 3 years old really put things into perspective for her.

“”Nobody wants to go through that stuff, but you know to have a 3-year-old, 4-year-old, or 2-year-old, there are kids going through this and that’s what affected me deeply,”” Darling said.

For head coach Niya Butts, she has seen tremendous change with the team as a whole. They have something to play for, to fight for, and that something is greater than just the thrill of victory.

Butts says the relationship with Makayla and her family has given the team time to reflect on the things in their lives as well.

When you’re dealing with issues of life and death in a lot of situations, it makes you really take a look back and say ‘Man, I am very blessed to be in my situation, very blessed to be healthy and happy,'”” Butts said. “”In so many ways it’s a blessing to have the problems I have and not have the issues that some other people are facing in the world.””

In the end it comes down to love and support, and the goal for the team is to make sure that there are as many outlets for the family as possible.

“”It’s all about making sure that (Makayla) understands that we care about her and we care about what happens to her. Hopefully, when she’s in our company, in our presence, she feels that ‘I have a connection with them, they care about what’s happening to me, we have that bond,'”” Butts said. “”That’s we want to do more than anything, that she knows that she has another family in Arizona women’s basketball.””

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