Ten-year-old Juliana Carver loves to swim. Unfortunately, between chemotherapy treatments, medications and routine hospital visits, Juliana doesn't always have the time or energy to be in the water.
"Her 'Make a Wish' wish when she first got cancer was a pool," her father said. John Carver describes his daughter as a "fish in the water." Now, at the end of her second battle with a rare form of muscle cancer, she'll be spending a lot more time with other young swimmers.
On Tuesday, Juliana became part of a Carroll County swim team that practices near her home in Hampstead. "She loves to swim. … She's really excited," said John Carver, who hopes his daughter will be able to help raise awareness of the disease while having fun with her new friends.
Juliana is the first cancer ambassador to be adopted by a sports team through Team StrongHope, an organization created to raise money to fight childhood cancer and to raise awareness of the disease. Bradd Atkinson, the founder of the organization, plans to recruit more ambassadors to be adopted by local teams and groups.
"[The ambassadors] will be supported by their team. It can be an uplifting, positive experience for them while they're battling what they're battling. I'm going to encourage these kids to communicate with their new friend. … In Juliana Carver's case, she'll be invited to come to practices and swim a little bit with the team," Atkinson said. "[Her] team will have that one meet … to swim in honor of her."
Team StrongHope was founded in January 2010. Atkinson originally planned to assemble a youth team to compete in an indoor lacrosse tournament. While forming the team, he asked himself: "Why don't we play for a cause? Let's play for pediatric cancer."
As luck would have it, a team mom works for Johns Hopkins in media and public relations. She introduced Atkinson to Stephanie Davis of Hopkins' Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, who helped the team send its contributions to the hospital. "[It] was meant to be," Atkinson said.
That year, the Team StrongHope lacrosse squad won its Presidents Day tournament. The young athletes raised money before the tournament and donated the proceeds to the pediatric oncology department at the Kimmel Center. The team also gave its tournament trophy to a child with cancer.
In the organization's first two years, Team StrongHope has raised more than $2,000. "Everything that we have raised to date has gone 100 percent to Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Foundation," Atkinson said.
Davis said that Team StrongHope "has raised money for awareness and cancer research. … [We're] very grateful for their partnership."
In 2011, the team won the tournament and donated the proceeds to Johns Hopkins again. This year, Team StrongHope had two representatives in the Presidents Day tournament and raised more than $1,000 through donations and an auction. Lax World donated a stick to Team StrongHope, which was auctioned for about $300.
This year, Team StrongHope is expanding beyond boys lacrosse. Dulaney High School's boys and girls junior varsity and varsity lacrosse teams, and Calvert Hall's lacrosse team will each play one game in honor of Team StrongHope this spring.
Fearless Lacrosse, a five-team club that was founded by Jason Forrester, will join Team StrongHope this year. Atkinson has coached for Fearless Lacrosse and helped start it a few years ago. He has a son on one of the teams.
Now Team StrongHope has expanded into swimming, and Atkinson hopes his organization will continue to grow. "I'd love to have some college teams that may want to play," he said. "I would like this to be a year-round thing. I would like it to encompass all sports — all organizations, if there was an interest. … Anything that would involve a team effort."
Atkinson's vision goes beyond including more teams and organizations. He hopes Team StrongHope will be able to raise money for pediatric oncology centers around the nation.
Juliana Carver is being treated at Sinai Hospital's pediatric oncology center. Atkinson hopes her new team will donate its proceeds to the hospital.
"As teams join … I think their donations will go specifically to the geographical area where the team organization is located, or if there is a child that they adopt as their ambassador, wherever their ambassador is being treated is where those funds will probably be channeled."
Atkinson, a lifelong Baltimore County resident and lacrosse player, is the only administrative member of Team StrongHope. However, his efforts have been aided by the help of volunteers such as Travis Taylor, a college student from York, Pa., who designed the red-and-yellow Team StrongHope logo for free. Atkinson also received a donation this year of 40 neon-yellow reversible jerseys from Lightning Wear Apparel in Kensington.
Atkinson hopes the organization will soon become a national charity. "I want to help people," he said. "It's in my blood."
To learn more about Team StrongHope, go to teamstronghope.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun