Sixteen years ago, nine-year-old Jaclyn Murphy was diagnosed with a medulloblastoma, a brain tumor common in children. After months of treatment and chemotherapy, and a connection to the Northwestern lacrosse team, Murphy recovered from cancer and ignited her desire to help children in her situation and many alike through the challenging circumstances for a child and their families battling pediatric cancer.
Now a Marist College graduate, Murphy has helped around 1,000 families nationwide with her Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which she founded a year later with her dad. Though the list of colleges she has worked with is endless, her foundation has worked its way back onto the Marist campus, with the help of the Marist College Volleyball team and head coach Sean Byron.
“I was here my first year and I was talking to them because I had heard of [Friends of Jaclyn] when I was at Ohio State,” said Byron. “I was talking to the assistant athletic director at the time and told him I was trying to get in contact with the foundation. At that moment, he literally texted Jaclyn and responded, ‘You know she went to school here?’”
Murphy graduated from Marist in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in communications. Since her battle with cancer, the Murphy family has worked nonstop to create partnerships with families and teams everywhere nationwide. This past February, a new partnership was formed in the walls of the McCann Arena, as the college hosted a signing ceremony of nine-year-old Gabriella Meikle, battling with Wilms’ Tumor, and her 12-year-old sister Emma.
“Gabriella was very excited,” said Stacy Meikle, the mother of the Meikle sisters. “Very nervous, very shy. She was going through a lot of chemotherapy at the time, so it was very overwhelming.”
Gabby Meikle was adopted by the Red Foxes through Friends of Jaclyn’s “Adopt-A-Child” program, one of the three programs that the foundation offers to families in need of support. The program pairs up a unique pediatric cancer patient with high school and college sports teams and makes the child an honorary member of the team, hence the signing day held by Marist for Meikle. This program was the original idea behind Jaclyn and the Murphy family’s mission for their foundation, starting behind the scenes with Jaclyn two decades ago.
Before getting diagnosed, Murphy was an aspiring athlete herself who played lacrosse in Hopewell Junction, New York.
“I played with like 30 guys, and when my coach saw I didn’t come back after a while, he wanted to do something for me,” said Murphy.
Murphy’s coach had a contact at Northwestern University, who got in touch with the Northwestern women’s lacrosse team, an original member of the American Lacrosse Conference, the standard of lacrosse in the NCAA until its end in 2014. Murphy, amid cancer treatment, was ecstatic.
“I ended up getting a care package from the team. Each girl took her time to write me a personal message,” said Murphy.
Along with the care package and personalized message, something else caught the young patient’s eye. There was a media guide outlying the rest of the Wildcat’s schedule, including their upcoming matchup against John Hopkins in Baltimore, MD.
“I begged my dad to take me down on the six-hour drive to John Hopkins,” said Murphy. “I asked him on the way down there is there any way I can meet the team? I fell asleep because at the time I still wasn’t feeling well. I was going through treatment, and I was weak.”
“We pull into this hotel and I’m like, ‘Dad, are we lost?’”. Jaclyn’s dad responded, “No, you’re gonna meet the team.”
Murphy would get the opportunity to tag along with the Wildcats and became a part of the team for the day. She rode on the team bus, went with the team into the locker room, and cheered them on as they beat John Hopkins that very day on the road. At the end of the game, the booth announcers relayed the message to the crowd that the Wildcats wanted to thank their number one fan, Jaclyn Murphy, for coming to the game.
“I got treated at Memorial Sloan in New York City, and on the ninth floor is the children’s floor, a sad place where heaven and hell meet,” said Murphy. “Whenever I had treatment there, I would get text messages from the team, and a little girl in the waiting room asked me who was texting me and I told her ‘My Friends.’”
This is where and when the ideas for her foundation started to flourish. Murphy wasn’t just a fan of the Northwestern women’s lacrosse team; she was a full-on member of the Wildcats that season and many more. In fact, the 2005 Wildcats would go undefeated and hoist the national championship for the first time in 64 years with Jaclyn by their side, even getting to celebrate the win on the field with the team and holding the championship trophy shown in an HBO Real Sports special. Not just one championship trophy– but five consecutive NCAA titles for the Wildcats– all with Jaclyn by their side.
Fast forward to the present day, where the Murphy’s foundation has paired up around 1,000 families with colleges and high schools from all over the country. Friends of Jaclyn has grown so much to be featured on YES network during the New York Yankees’ Hope Week, where the team signed three pediatric cancer patients to one-day contracts, and Jaclyn and Denis Murphy got to throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium in honor of the work they had done for hundreds of kids much like Jaclyn years ago.
Being Murphy’s own alma mater, Marist has had multiple teams adopt patients even before she attended the college, including the football and women’s basketball teams. Marist’s new adoptees– Gabby and Emma– have become full-fledged members of the Red Foxes since signing day.
“Jacyln and Friends of Jaclyn reached out to me and said they had another family in the Hudson Valley that was interested in connecting with the team,” said Byron. “They’re a cool family and we’re happy we got to adopt both Gabby and her sister Emma to our team.”
Along with Adopt-A-Child, the foundation features two other programs. The “Guardian Angel” program allows teams to send in cards, messages, posters, and more to pediatric cancer patients through various stages of their cancer journey. Emma Meikle, the older sister of Gabriella, was adopted to the Red Fox volleyball team through their “Safe on the Sidelines” program, which is specifically made for the siblings of the patients so they could stay connected with their sibling(s) while becoming a member of the team themselves.
“She never wants to take any attention away from her sister,” said Stacy Meikle. “But she also went through a hard time when her sister was diagnosed because we were at the hospital for so long.”
After the adoption signing held for the Meikle sisters, they got involved with the Marist volleyball team during the off-season in the spring and summer to become full members of the Red Fox team. While she was in chemotherapy during the offseason, Emma came to the team during their summer camp to help and connect with her “teammates” during the difficult times for the Meikle family.
“She was like our little assistant,” said Byron. “Gabriella was still in chemotherapy so she couldn’t come a whole lot, and when she did come for the ceremonies, we all masked up so we didn’t expose her to anything like COVID. Emma was like our little assistant, helping with the team store, passing out freeze pops, she probably enjoyed eating them more than anything.”
“For her, feeling that special bond with the team was great because all those girls are wonderful on that team. They taught her a lot and they made her feel special in her own way, not just because of her sister,” said Stacy Meikle.
Their bond with the team has continued into the latest season for the Red Foxes. During their home match against Quinnipiac, the Meikle family was featured in the pre-game announcements and watched as Marist swept the Bobcats in three sets with the Meikle family in the arena—with Gabriella coaching on the sidelines for the Red Foxes.
“Gabriella really enjoyed coaching and sitting on the sidelines at the match. They can’t pick a favorite player because they love them all,” said Meikle.
Meikle credited the entire volleyball team for being a large part of the recovery process for her daughter and for being such a unique support system, making the two sisters feel like a part of the team, including the entire staff and assistant coaches.
“The assistant coach [Vink-Lainas] tried to put a little yellow ribbon the day of the match in his hair. Gabriella got a kick out of that, like so tiny because her hair has just grown back,” said Meikle.
The Meikle family has become a solidified partner of the Red Foxes and is here to grow their relationship with the volleyball team as their season progresses. The three-way partnership between the team, family, and the foundation has continued to create a lasting partnership between Jaclyn and her alma mater, but more importantly a friendship between the Meikle sisters and Marist volleyball.
“I’ve messaged Jaclyn and said if there are any events coming up, Gabriella would love to be part of them. Same thing with the foxes. We’re always in contact with Sean,” said Meikle. “He’s always messaging, checking on Gabriella, especially around her doctor’s appointments and her scan time.”
As for Jaclyn Murphy, the plans are to continue to expand the foundation to more families and schools across the country and excel past the 1,000-goal mark. The cancer survivor has gone from getting a bond with a team herself, to spreading her own experience to families once in her situation.
“I’m a proud alumni,” said Murphy. “I’m so happy my college has accepted me, the coaches and teams have accepted me, and everyone has accepted my dream of helping others. When I was sick, my Make-A-Wish was no more cancer, but to me, this is a step in the process. If they’re having a bad day, all they have to do is call up their team or go watch their new big sisters or brothers play a game and cheer them on. I’m very lucky.”
Edited by Isabella Cicinelli and Ricardo Martinez
Photo from Marist Athletics