Childhood Cancer Awareness Month is one of the busiest times of the year for patients at The University of Texas MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital. During September, patients and siblings typically enjoy awareness events and activities hosted by MD Anderson, donors and community partners. Although fall events were different in 2020 due to COVID-19, the transition from in-person to virtual events ensured that the virus didn’t prevent important patient programs from happening.
Nor did it stop support from the two-time Major League Soccer (MLS) champions, Houston Dynamo FC, and the 2020 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Challenge Cup champions, the Houston Dash. Early in 2020, MD Anderson became the official cancer center and jersey partner of the Dash, expanding on the relationship it has had with the Dynamo since 2019. The joint collaboration has focused efforts on prevention education, community outreach, survivorship and philanthropic initiatives to help end cancer. The united front also has opened the doors for more engagement with MD Anderson employees, patients and their families.
As part of the annual MLS Kick Childhood Cancer campaign, the Dynamo organization previously invited MD Anderson pediatric patients to participate in pregame activities at BBVA Stadium, in recognition of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. In 2020, the Dynamo brought the joy of the game to patients in a special way with the naming of 11 pediatric cancer survivors as honorary Dynamo FC players.
Prior to kickoff at the September game against Sporting Kansas City, Dynamo Starting XI players wore the names of pediatric cancer survivors on their jerseys. Eight of the honorary players were mailed a special knapsack full of soccer accessories, including a signed jersey and a 2020 Soccer Kicks Cancer player contract signed by John Walker, Houston Dynamo Football Club president.
Dynamo defender Zarek Valentin made a special socially distanced surprise visit to the homes of cancer survivors and soccer fans Ryder Solberg, 15; Leila Didic, 17; and Lara Amer, 11, to drop off their contracts and items.
“We try to give back as much as possible, especially during these uncertain times — whether that’s dropping stuff off at a distance, wearing their names on our jerseys on the field when patients can’t be there or showing our support in other ways,” says Valentin, who had a chance to visit with Solberg. Parents shared photos and videos of the young survivors’ excitement as they signed honorary player contracts.
Virtual soccer-themed fun
With the help of MD Anderson’s Pediatrics Support Programs team, Dash players joined counterparts from the Dynamo in a variety of patient virtual events leading up to and throughout September. In August, Dash defender Katie Naughton closed out MD Anderson’s weeklong virtual camp with a skills clinic for teen patients and siblings. Camp On-the-Go participants were mailed camp boxes with soccer balls in preparation for the virtual skills lesson.
Naughton and forward Veronica Latsko teamed up with Valentin on a virtual soccer-themed art session for patients hosted by MD Anderson’s Arts in Medicine program. Latsko and Valentin also joined Dynamo FC midfielder Boniek Garcia to co-host one of two online bingo sessions with patients in the hospital. Dash co-captain Jane Campbell and defender Megan Oyster joined Dynamo FC midfielder Memo Rodriguez and forward Christian Ramirez in co-hosting the other virtual bingo session.
“It was great to have the players join some of our already established virtual patient programs,” says Nicole Rosburg, manager of Child, Adolescent and Young Adult Life at MD Anderson. “The fun, interactive activities helped the patients take their minds off their treatments and made patients feel less isolated and connected to the outside world while they were being cared for at the hospital.”
Patients at the Children’s Cancer Hospital also were recipients of MLS care packages. One teen patient being treated at the hospital was surprised with a Dynamo care package complete with a soccer ball and a signed jersey from the players. The Dynamo and Dash also helped spread awareness to their fans and followers about MD Anderson’s Children’s Art Project, a program that offers products inspired by the art of patients at the Children’s Cancer Hospital. Several of the honorary players are artists for the program.