According to doctors, Ava Hackett was not supposed to live past the age of two. The daughter of Anthony and Ann Hackett, Ava weighed just over a pound when she was born only 24 weeks into pregnancy. She was hospitalized for the first 455 days of her life.

Despite defying the odds, Ava, now 12 years old, still experiences complications with her health. But, those challenges are made just a little bit easier thanks to her relationship with the student-athletes and coaches of the Daemen University women’s volleyball team.

Last spring, Ava was paired with them through Team IMPACT, a non-profit organization that tackles the emotional trauma and social isolation experienced by children facing serious and chronic illnesses.

Daemen has been hosting Team IMPACT children for nearly a decade. Just last July, the Division of Athletics entered into a formal partnership with the organization, pledging to increase its level of participation.

On the Team

In the last year, five Daemen teams have been paired with Team IMPACT children and more relationships are in the works.

When a Team IMPACT child is drafted onto a Daemen team, to the greatest extent possible, the child becomes a part of that team. They attend practices, games, and other team functions. The interaction between the child and student-athletes is mutually beneficial. As the child gains a new support system, student-athletes learn how to be a positive force in someone else’s life.

“Seeing first-hand the kind of impact you can make on someone is especially humbling and gratifying,” said Katie Titus, of the Daemen women’s basketball team who has served as a Team IMPACT fellow during the last academic year.

She added, “These children face so much adversity on a daily basis. Things that you and I take for granted can be difficult for them. It’s inspiring for me, as a student-athlete, to see them get through their struggles and to be able to develop a friendship with them.”

AVA at the Big Dance

When the Daemen women’s volleyball team advanced to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in Tampa last December, Team IMPACT’s fundraising network provided flights and a hotel stay for Ava and her family so she could experience the thrills alongside her teammates.

The bond she developed and the emotions she felt were palpable following the Wildcats’ loss to Western Washington in the national quarterfinals.

“They’re really good,” a tearful Ava said about her team after the match. “They are coming back next year.”

When a reporter asked about her being a part of the team, Ava’s tears subsided.

“Yeah, I am,” she remarked with an ear-to-ear grin.