GVSU club rugby pairs with Children’s Healing Center

GVL / Kevin Sielaff - Grand Valleys club rugby team defeats Oakland University Oct. 3 in Allendale.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL / Kevin Sielaff – Grand Valley’s club rugby team defeats Oakland University Oct. 3 in Allendale.

Beau Troutman

From playing on sprained ankles to losing in championship games, athletes define adversity in many different ways.

The Grand Valley State men’s rugby club now has a new understanding for adversity thanks to its off-field activities this fall.

The Lakers recently partnered with the Children’s Healing Center (CHC) in Grand Rapids. The CHC is a year-round nonprofit recreational facility that specializes in creating opportunities for children with weak immune systems.

Kids who are battling cancer, undergoing a bone marrow/organ transplant or facing chronic illnesses are forced to avoid a number of public places due to the risk for infection.

“What we’ve created is a really clean, hospital-grade facility and an environment where they can come and play with other kids, interact, and really just be normal kids,” said CHC Executive Director Amanda Winn.

Winn, a cancer survivor, says her own experiences inspired her to head a place for kids who are often isolated.

“I just wanted to create a place where (the kids) could meet other families and heal together,” she said.

The 7,000 square-foot facility uses a variety of safety measures to maintain a clean environment. It uses a HEPA air-filtration system, daily sanitation and requires anyone in the facility to be screened for potential illnesses.

GVSU has had a relationship with the CHC for the past five years through the nursing and allied health sciences programs. Rugby team members Thomas Strandquist and Leo Pavletic first connected with the CHC through GVSU student Kelly Koerner, an employee at the CHC.

“We’re good friends with (Koerner), and she knew we were on the team,” Strandquist said. “She figured she’d come ask us if we wanted to help and we jumped right at the chance.”

The players’ first visit to the CHC was on Oct. 2. The Lakers go every Friday from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., and do a variety of fitness and learning-based activities with the children.

“There’s a bunch of cool things to do for the sick children, so they can forget about being sick and all the negative stuff going on in their life, if that’s even possible,” Pavletic said. “They get to have fun with some rugby guys. We try to make sure they’re smiling and having a good time.”

The team only sends two or three players a week, because the CHC wanted to stress interpersonal interaction during the visits. Winn is happy with how the program has come along.

“I think that it’s really inspiring to see college students giving back, and recognizing how much of a gift they can be to these kids and to people’s lives by taking a little bit of their time to give back,” Winn said.

Laker head coach John Mullett says in his 12 years at GVSU, this team is one of the most active in the community he’s ever had. In addition to their involvement with the CHC, Mullett says the Lakers have held rugby clinics for both mentally and resource-challenged children.

“I’ve got to tell you, this is a group that from top to bottom really has a lot of guys that want to have a positive reflection on the game, and want to go out and become contributing members to their community,” Mullett said. “I couldn’t be happier for them that they’re discovering the benefit that they receive by helping provide a benefit to others.”

Winn says the players are doing more for the kids than they realize with their weekly visits, and the activities are a big part of the healing process.

“Mental attitude in the healing process is a big component of it,” she said. “The perception of how you feel can impact how quickly you actually do feel better. The ability to make the kids feel as normal as possible, to have them laugh, and bring joy is really helpful.”

The team plans on a prolonged relationship with the CHC. Not only is the team benefitting the kids, but Pavletic said the program with the CHC has been beneficial for the team as well.

“The CHC and GVSU rugby are both excited about it,” he said. “There’s nothing better than seeing those kids smile, it’s just the best thing in the world. Being able to have this connection every Friday is pretty awesome.”