Eight-year-old suffering from serious genetic condition joins UConn lacrosse team

Kelli Stacy
Contact Reporterkstacy@courant.com

Kaleigh Thereault is at an age when everything should be simple in her life. At 8 years old, she loves mint chocolate chip ice cream, the feeling of Jonathan the Husky’s fur under her fingertips and the special VIP badge she’s been given to wear around her neck for the day.

It’s Tuesday and Kaleigh is running around inside the Mark R. Shenkman Training Center on UConn’s campus. The first thing you notice about her is the boundless energy and excitement she exudes — all smiles and laughter. She’s playing with the UConn women’s lacrosse team, a group she feels at ease with despite the fact she’s met the players just a few times. While Kaleigh is supposed to be benefiting from being around the team, the team is learning from her because she’s been through something few can understand.

From the moment she was born, Kaleigh has suffered from tuberous sclerosis complex. It’s a genetic condition that causes often-benign tumors to grow in various organs and can result in numerous health problems. Through Team IMPACT, a nonprofit organization that pairs college teams with children suffering from serious or chronic illnesses, Kaleigh was matched with the lacrosse team. On Tuesday, she signed a national letter of intent and joined the team.

For Kaleigh’s mom, Rebecca, Team IMPACT seemed like a good way to give her daughter the chance to be a part of a team because her illness doesn’t allow her to participate in many sports. Kaleigh now has the opportunity to learn about camaraderie.

“It boosts her self-esteem,” Rebecca Thereault said. “She feels like she’s achieved something and she’s important and people really care. It gives her something to focus on that’s not like treatment, the hospital and therapy.”

Joined by her brother, Jamison, and lacrosse coach Katie Woods, Kaleigh giddily signed her letter of intent and pulled on her very own white UConn jersey. Overflowing with energy but slightly flustered by the cameras and attention, Kaleigh declined to give a speech but was quick to comment on Jonathan the Husky’s soft fur and say she was “really excited” when asked how happy she was about joining the team. With a final round of applause, Kaleigh was given the go ahead to take the field again and ran to join the team.

Though signing the letter is ceremonial, she is free to join the team for practices and games, team dinners and other events.

“Everything that Kaleigh is is perfect for the Huskies,” Woods said during the press conference. “She’s got the passion, the energy and the excitement. I think she probably loves [our mascot] more than some of our players, which makes her a perfect fit …”

Woods reached out to Team IMPACT last spring looking to get involved. A few months later they were matched with Kaleigh and immediately invited her to meet some of the team leaders and coaches before inviting her back for an alumni game to meet the whole team.

“I think it’s just eye-opening for our team to recognize that when you’re here they’re always all about them and the things they deal with, and then they meet this little girl that’s going through something so much bigger than anything they’ve had to deal with, and it’s really impressive that she does it with such grace and with a smile on her face,” Woods said. “At the same time, we want to offer her a group of girls to hang out with, look up to and kind of recognize that things aren’t always going to go great, but she has a great support system in the team. It’s been a great match for everybody and so far it’s been really positive, so we’re looking forward to having it continue.”

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