Boston College Hockey, The Bello Family, and Dozens of Lives Changed

We often use the word “life-changing” to describe Team IMPACT. The friendships that are built through our program can change lives and transform futures for kids and student-athletes alike. But according to Melissa Bello, whose son Josh is matched with the Boston College hockey team, our program can do so much more.

“Life-changing doesn’t do it justice,” Melissa said. “This changed Josh. He will forever be more successful at anything he does and how he handles life and is able to navigate his future because of Team IMPACT.

Josh’s Team IMPACT journey began in 2019, about a year after he was diagnosed with a condition called nephrotic syndrome. Josh was navigating a new diagnosis that left him often feeling anxious and isolated. He missed school for treatment and couldn’t participate in many of the activities he enjoyed, and his family was looking for new ways to get him involved. That’s when they found Team IMPACT, and soon enough, Josh was matched with the Boston College hockey team.

“We joined Team IMPACT to bring a positive and fun experience to Josh, but he was dealing with a lot of anxiety and emotions trying to process the past 12 months he spent in and out of the hospital, on medications, receiving IV treatments, and more,” Melissa said. When Josh first met the team, he was shy—so shy that he hid under the table or buried his face whenever his new teammates were around. His parents worried this new experience might not be the best path for Josh, but his doctors trusted the power of this program. “Josh was very anxious and nervous around the team, and we weren’t sure if we should continue with Team IMPACT,” Melissa shared. “We started taking Josh for some help on dealing with his anxiety, and his doctor told us, ‘Don’t leave Team IMPACT. He needs to learn skills to cope with anxiety and not run from it.’”

Fast forward to now, and the Bello family can’t imagine their lives without the Eagles. “Josh just celebrated his 10th birthday at a BC game with a lot of friends. He gave them a locker room tour, introduced his friends to the players, and invited his friends for an autograph session with the team after the game,” Melissa said. “If we had let Josh ‘exit,’ he’d miss these experiences—his anxiety from having a chronic illness would win.”

Melissa recalled one of the aha moments she had that highlighted this growth in her son—a time when Josh allowed himself to have an experience his anxiety would have taken from him just years earlier. BC’s first home game of the season resulted in a 4-2 victory, and Josh made his way to the locker room to celebrate the win with his teammates. Josh ran into first-year Eagle Will Smith and was starstruck in a way that doesn’t often happen to Josh around his teammates. That’s because Will was drafted fourth overall by the San Jose Sharks in the 2023 NHL Draft and is one of seven current Eagles who recently won gold with the U.S. National Juniors team. Will said hi to Josh and then disappeared back into the locker room, only to soon return with his game-used stick, which he signed and gave to Josh to take home with him.

“I spoke about this experience with Josh’s medical team, and the first thing they said to me was, ‘Imagine if Josh had run from his anxiety. If he hadn’t worked on his coping skills or gotten his anxiety to a better place, he would never had the courage to go down to the locker room after the game. He would have never had the opportunity to see Will,'” Melissa recalled. “He would be missing out on these huge moments, these moments of fun and experiences. This is why Team IMPACT is critical for kids. We need to make sure every child with a serious illness or disability can have these moments as they navigate their medical journey.

In his time on the team, Josh has met dozens of players and attended hundreds of games and practices, team dinners, and events on campus with his teammates and other Team IMPACT families. His teammates visit him at home and school, celebrate holidays and life events, and keep in touch even after they graduate from BC or enter the NHL. The bonds they’ve formed, the memories they’ve created, and the lessons they’ve learned from one another are things Josh and his teammates will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Melissa says there are too many good times with the team to pick a favorite, but there is one moment that sticks out in her head. “During their COVID season, BC was playing a game against BU, and the score was tied,” Melissa recalled. “With 0.1 seconds left in overtime, Drew Helleson from BC scored a game winner. Josh started running through our house screaming in excitement. I can still picture him leaping in the air as the announcers yelled ‘GOAL!’” But it wasn’t the win itself that made this moment—which Josh now calls the Helleson Play—so memorable for Melissa. It was what Josh learned from the experience.

“We still talk about this game all the time and how you should never ever give up,” Melissa said, “because even with 0.1 seconds when most people will count you out, and even you might count yourself out, you should still have hope. It’s not the wins or the losses—it’s being around the people and the relationships he builds with this team.

Josh celebrates his 10th birthday at BC

And when Melissa talks about Josh’s team, she’s talking about more than the dozens of student-athletes Josh has bonded with over the years. The BC coaches, admins, families, players’ friends and girlfriends, and Josh’s own friends and family have been integrated into one big support system. “Team IMPACT will better your family. The relationships you develop with the team—players, coaches, and staff—won’t be transient,” Melissa said. “You’ll meet people who will take your family in as one of their own and watch over your child with great care, giving them opportunities to grow and thrive.

John Hegarty, BC’s Director of Operations, has become a particularly special person in Josh’s life. As the players graduate or leave the college, John has been a consistent and familiar presence for Josh. Every Monday during the season, Josh calls John to discuss the newest NCAA hockey rankings, talk stats, and argue why BC should be ranked higher.

Though they have bonded over their shared love of the sport, their connection extends far beyond the ice of the hockey arena. John worked to help Josh when his anxiety was at its peak, and, likely without even knowing, helped Josh form new goals and see a new future for himself. Josh is now determined to attend Boston College when he is older and work, this time for John, as a student manager on the hockey team. “This is how Team IMPACT becomes a part of your life,” Melissa said. “We joined hoping to give Josh an opportunity to do something fun, and it has transcended into Josh planning his college choices at age 10 because he never wants to leave the team.” With every interaction with the team, Melissa says Josh is learning life skills and hitting goals without even realizing the progress he is making.

“Life-changing feels like almost too vague or too cliché. This experience has made Josh a better person. It has given him skills to be successful in life,” Melissa said. “If you don’t have coping skills, you can go down a deep dark hole when hiccups happen and life throws you curveballs. Those are things that are not easy to learn or teach. There’s this noise in the back of your head, and Josh has learned how to silence that noise and enjoy life and enjoy these moments and these opportunities.”

When asked what one message she has for the Boston College Eagles, Melissa said, “Be proud of the lessons you’ve taught Josh, and of course, thank you. Each touch Josh has with the team builds. It gives Josh more and more confidence to be who he is and know he can tackle whatever curve balls come his way.”

With the Eagles by his side, Josh has come a long way from hiding under tables at BC four years ago. He is now the mayor of Boston College, being recognized every time he’s on campus, getting honored on the big screen during games, and even speaking to media on behalf of Team IMPACT at events. Being an Eagle has now became a part of his daily routine, and the experiences he’s gained along the way have helped him grow into the person his family knows he was always meant to be.

“That confidence can’t be taught—it has to be practiced through experiences,” Melissa said. “The time the players spend with Josh is admirable, and as they progress through college and with their hockey careers, they should walk away knowing how much each conversation, text message, high five, visit to his sports game—everything—has meant to him.