Expanding the circle of friends

Marist women's soccer player Jamie Strumwasser didn't know whether to be good cop or bad cop. It's a dilemma big sisters the world over face from time to time.

Strumwasser's conundrum came not on the pitch during a game or at practice but during a cookout shortly before the start of the most recent college soccer season. Not far from their Poughkeepsie, New York, campus, Marist players were guests of the Ferretti family, including 9-year-old Jaimie Ferretti.

Two and a half years ago, Jaimie Ferretti was diagnosed with childhood ependymoma, a form of brain tumor. She has since undergone multiple surgeries as a result of tumors, in addition to extensive radiation treatment. The party came only a few months after the most recent surgery and completion of more than a month of radiation, and Ferretti's father repeatedly reminded his daughter not to take off the cap she needed to wear in the pool at that time. And with all the stubborn independence one might expect of any 9-year-old girl, she repeatedly ignored the commands.

Hence Strumwasser's mini moral dilemma, unsure whether to reiterate the directive or let the girl whom the Red Foxes adopted nearly two years ago and consider a little sister live out her moment of free-spirited disobedience. Maybe even encourage her a little bit.

Months after the actual event, almost out of nowhere during a much longer phone conversation, Strumwasser audibly choked up as she told the story.

"I could never imagine going through my childhood the way that she is," Strumwasser said later. "She is a role model, even though I am older than her. She really is a role model in the way that she carries herself and portrays herself, even though she's going through one of the hardest things anybody can go through, let alone a child.

"Let alone a little girl who is just trying to live and have a good time and experience life as she should."

Inspiring such sentiment is the mission of Friends of Jaclyn, the charitable organization responsible for bringing together Ferretti and the Marist team. It seeks to create a bond that is one of a kind.

And it hopes to do so as many times and in as many places as possible.

A decade ago Jaclyn Murphy, then 9 years old, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and found support and friendship from the Northwestern women's lacrosse players despite having had no prior connection to that team. The organization that Murphy then started with her father, Denis, in 2005, includes not just the women's soccer team at Marist but several hundred teams from colleges and high schools around the country.

Teams that apply are matched with children who have pediatric brain tumors (or in the case of a parallel program based on the experiences of Jaclyn's sister, the siblings of those children). The objective is exactly what the name suggests: Friendship. That requires not a one-time meeting or ceremony but a lasting connection.

Recently honored by the New York Yankees, including a chance for both Jaclyn and Denis to throw out first pitches, the program is already a big success with even bigger aspirations -- not just expanding its reach even more within athletics but broadening out to areas like the fine arts. Yet even as it grows, its strength rests on its small scale and its personal relationships.

Its story isn't one story as much as the sum of hundreds of stories like the one involving the Marist soccer team.

"It's really changed her life in the sense that it's given her confidence, it's given her something to look forward to," said Debbie Ferretti, Jaimie's mother. "She absolutely adores going up to see these girls. This is like the highlight of her weekends, going up to see 'her girls,' as she calls them."

Sports have a knack for creating memories that last a lifetime, like when Strumwasser helped set up teammate Amanda Epstein for the only goal in the conference championship game as freshmen, giving Marist its first NCAA tournament bid.

It was an experience the players earned and one only a fraction of those who compete ever get. Those are the experiences of a lifetime. But what they share with Ferretti is an experience for a lifetime.

"She's literally the strongest person in the entire world," Epstein said.

It is in some ways fitting that Ferretti's story unfolds at Marist, where Murphy recently completed her sophomore year as a student manager for the women's lacrosse team. Now a decade cancer free, she sees her vision for Friends of Jaclyn play out on a regular basis for a girl who wasn't even born when Murphy was originally diagnosed and given less than 50-50 odds of survival. But the proximity is also more than coincidence. Murphy is the inspiration for all the program's partnerships, but she had a direct hand in bringing together these two sides.

Now entering her fourth season as Marist head coach, Kate Lyn was an assistant at Columbia when its women's soccer team became one of the early participants in Friends of Jaclyn and adopted 6-year-old Ashley Gankiewicz in 2008 at Lyn's urging. What she liked about the program was that it wasn't strictly a fundraiser or a one-off interaction.

"This one really prioritizes the relationship aspect, which I thought was the coolest thing when I was at Columbia," Lyn said. "How Ashley Gankiewicz, the old Friend of Jaclyn member, how she started off and how she really built a sisterhood with the Columbia gals. I thought that it was something that is priceless."

Lyn wanted to bring that with her when she was hired as the head coach at Marist in 2011, but it came to fruition only after a chance encounter. As her team one day pushed by the crush of spring scheduling to an out-of-the-way practice field it had never before used, Lyn heard someone call her name. She turned and saw what appeared to be a father and daughter exploring the campus. It turned out to be Murphy and her father scouting the school. A conversation ensued and the Murphys assured Lyn they would find her team a match.

So it was that before a home game against Hofstra early in the 2012 season, Ferretti officially became part of the Marist soccer family. And if the moment was one part heartwarming, it was also at least two parts awkward. As Epstein recalled, the younger girl looked on in overwhelmed silence as more than 20 strangers in soccer uniforms waited to hug her and introduce themselves. It wasn't easy to get her to even stay in the locker room. Friendships aren't built in a day.

Also in attendance for the ceremony that day, Murphy knew exactly the thoughts going through a young mind. She had lived it a decade earlier when she met the Northwestern players and coaches.

"At first she was really scared to be on the field or to be around the girls, and that was me," Murphy said. "These girls are college girls and you're only like 10, 12 years old and you're like, 'What's going on here?' But their bond gets closer and closer as the seasons go on and their contact with each other increases. [It is remarkable] to see her from when I first saw her, being scared running on and off the field to running to them and hugging them."

It has not been an easy go of it for Ferretti. Her original tumor was removed before she first met the Marist players but another was discovered in the spring of 2013. The weeks and months that followed were full of procedures, treatments and hospital stays from New York to Tennessee (an MRI in June offered reason to hope the tumor is completely gone). Through all of that, Marist players experienced not a child receding into a shell but the full force of a vibrant personality as Ferretti grew more comfortable around her new sisters.

They don't talk about soccer much, nor tumors and chemotherapy, for that matter. Just stuff. Like everyone else.

"It's literally like she's a normal girl," Epstein said. "She talks about what she sings in school, what plays she's in, how boys still have cooties. She tells 'Yo momma' jokes all the time, which are very funny, and I don't know how she knows them. She should be a little more serious than she is, but she's so fun-loving that it's hard not to get that same atmosphere when you're with her."

Of all the moments Murphy shared with the Northwestern lacrosse team all those years ago, one memory that still stands out is a Christmas phone call from Lindsay Finocchiaro, one of the players at the time. Murphy loved any time she got to spend around the team, of course, and she loved seeing the Wildcats pile up national championships. But something resonated about one of the players taking time out of her holiday to call and see how Murphy was doing and ask what kind of gifts she'd scored. That small gesture and what it represented about the bond that had been forged, rather than forced, meant everything to her and sums up what she hopes the program that bears her name is about.

"When they were texting or calling me or writing on my CaringBridge site or making little videos for me on YouTube, that took my mind off what I was going through," Murphy recalled. "I was in my own little happy place. I wasn't in a hospital, I was at home on the couch -- that's how I felt.

"I was texting, calling, talking to my friends and my big sisters who took my mind off everything."

It is the same kind of interaction that takes place when Strumwasser, Epstein or a dozen other Red Foxes check in with Ferretti on Facebook or invite her to come with them to lunch after a soccer practice. Or when Marissa Mertens, one of the few players in Poughkeepsie for the summer, drops by just to spend some time with her. It doesn't need to be a big production. It isn't organized by a coach. Ferretti is just, in her own way, one of them.

She and her parents went to graduation last spring. She was sad the seniors were leaving, she told her mom, but she was happy they were going to go live their lives.

All of which is why as worried as Strumwasser might have been about getting Ferretti in trouble in the pool at the cookout almost a year ago, Ferretti's mother recalled another set of emotions.

"I can't even tell you what it did for her -- and for my husband and I because we were so happy to see her laughing and smiling and playing after having such a crummy summer for a little girl," Debbie said. "Sitting in the house she couldn't do much of anything. These girls put the spark back into her."

In the best cases, like with Murphy and hopefully now Ferretti, those involved provide friendship during a difficult time to a child who is able to go on to lead a full life. In other cases made unavoidable by the grim math of tumors, they can only try to do the same in lives too short.

But the friendship isn't only given. There can never be too many of these stories, but there are a lot, hundreds spawned by Friends of Jaclyn alone. Like most people looking on from afar, Strumwasser had heard countless variations. She listened to the athletes involved talk about an expectation at the beginning that they could help the child, only to find they got back at least as much as they gave.

Maybe, she always thought to herself, but it also sounded a little like the kind of thing people say because they're supposed to feel that way.

Then she found herself in the company of a 9-year-old girl so intent on getting the most out of a life that seemed so intent on testing her resolve. And it wasn't clear who was helping whom more.

"It's life-changing," Strumwasser said. "It's not just one day where I'm meeting somebody. It's a relationship that is building and growing, and it's teaching me life lessons. I don't know when I'm going to need them, I don't know when I'm going to use them. It could be 10 years from now.

"But she's teaching us things that I never thought I'd be able to know."

Friends will do that.