Richi is 7 years old, but he does not lead the life of most children his age.
Much of Richi's time is spent in the hospital, where he undergoes frequent cancer-treatment procedures. He spends more time around adults and doctors than he does other elementary school students. He goes to school only when he can, which makes it difficult to make friends.
But now, thanks to an organization called Team IMPACT, Richi is part of something few seven-year olds are: a collegiate soccer team.
Team IMPACT is a non-profit organization that partners children who have life-threatening illnesses and chronic diseases with collegiate athletics programs across the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. The organization matched Richi with the Northeastern men's soccer team, which drafted the seven-year old as an honorary squad member for the 2013 season.
Now, Richi has a support group of friends and brothers that he can call whenever he wants or needs to. If he wants play ball or see a movie, they'll be there. If he feels like taking in a team game at Parsons Field in his hometown of Brookline, Mass., they'll be happy to have him.
The team first met Richi and his parents two weeks ago when it invited the family to a team meal at a Northeastern dining hall. A bond formed instantly.
"It was nice to sit down and watch Richi and the soccer boys interact with each other because it gave me chills just watching them," said Kelly Wallace, a senior forward on the women's ice hockey team who is the student president of Northeastern's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) and the on-campus liaison for Team IMPACT. "They were just acting like he was another brother or a teammate."
Wallace's job description – serve as a communication outlet between Northeastern Athletics and Team IMPACT while promoting awareness and understanding of what the organization does – sounds simple, but she has already been hit with a daunting task: help get every Northeastern varsity team registered for Team IMPACT.
The mission stems from last year, when three children were paired with Northeastern teams: 10-year old Michayla Mathis (women's basketball), nine-year old Ario Nour (men's hockey) and five-year old Liam McGourtry (baseball). Michayla was treated to her own national signing day, on which Northeastern hosted a formal presentation and Michayla signed a mock national letter of intent. Other perks for the kids included receiving their own locker in the locker room, hanging out in the locker room before and after games and being invited to sit on the bench during their team's contests.
'The experiences were so successful for everyone who participated," said Justin Bell, assistant director of compliance and student-athlete welfare and the senior advisor for SAAC, that the Athletics department wanted to be involved with Team IMPACT again in 2013-14 – except on a much larger scale.
"We're really making a push this upcoming year to get every team that we have sponsored to register," Bell said. "It doesn't mean that every team will have a kid this year, but every team will be eligible."
SAAC, which is responsible for many of the community outreach initiatives taken on by Northeastern Athletics, hopes that all of its teams will be registered with Team IMPACT by the beginning of the fall sports season in September, according to Bell. To apply, each team will fill out an application and potentially be matched with a kid based on the child's likes and dislikes, favorite sport or favorite school, if they have one. Once the kids are matched, the team has the autonomy to incorporate them however they choose.
For now, though, it is just a waiting game. Four teams – men's soccer, baseball, men's ice hockey and women's basketball – have already been matched with a child. Women's ice hockey is waiting on a match, and other teams are still trying to get involved.
But if there is one student-athlete who can make sure it all comes together, Bell said, it's Wallace.
"Kelly is very intense, and Kelly gets things done," he said. "I think with Kelly and her demeanor, her attitude, it's going to go to that next level."
This is not Wallace's first go-around with community service programs. In her time at Northeastern, she has already been involved with Playworks, Metro Boston and the You Can Play initiative in addition to speaking at the Mayor's Youth Council Youth Fitness Challenge earlier this month. She said helping others is "just part of who I am."
"I want people to know that it doesn't matter where you come from or what you think you can't do, because the only person that's going to stop you from doing what you want is yourself," she said. "I just really want to help people and make a difference because I am a student-athlete [and] we're supposed to be role models on campus."
Bell said he was blown away by the reception to the program last year by every student-athlete involved, and its value is two-fold. Not only is it an enriching life experience, but it also helps the team become a stronger, tighter unit.
"For our student-athletes, it's a real humbling experience," Bell said. "Just getting close with these kids off that initial meeting is something that I think really affects people. But I think it affects them in a positive way, not necessarily where they're feeling sad, but inspirational. It kind of makes them think when they're complaining about schoolwork or how little time they have that there are people dealing with a lot bigger issues and are facing it with smiles."
Wallace is one of many student-athletes who has a busy summer ahead of her. In addition to training for her final hockey season, she'll be leading the Team IMPACT effort and beginning graduate school next month on a path to earn her master's degree in leadership with a concentration in profit management. Wallace also plans on talking to other captains around Hockey East to see if their team would be interested in working with Team IMPACT. She hopes that the more the word gets out, the more children will be able to benefit from the program.
It's a lot to juggle, she said, but seeing the kids on campus with their teammates makes it all work it.
"You see this seven-year old, and they've been through more than any of us have ever been through and he's still smiling, and that's the greatest thing," Wallace said. "Knowing that you can make an impact on this small child who's been through so much is just incredible, so for me it's worth it."