The Sabin Family and BU Soccer: Teaching and Learning Together

For many kids matched in our program, teammates quickly become friends, and those friends quickly become family. When the Sabin family joined Team IMPACT, they found a new family, new best friends, and a new extended network of support—not only in Boston University soccer but also in the Team IMPACT community as a whole.

“Team IMPACT goes beyond sports and beyond the child matched with the team,” said Jill Sabin, whose nine-year-old son Pierce has been a member of the BU soccer team since 2021. “Team IMPACT is a true family-oriented program. Your other children will develop lasting relationships, you will find a support system you never expected.”

Since Pierce was matched, Jill has fully embraced the opportunities Team IMPACT and BU soccer have presented to her family. Her undying commitment and dedicated advocacy have helped introduce Team IMPACT to dozens of families across New England, giving more families like hers a team of their own.

This team has helped Pierce in ways his family never even imagined. When Pierce was three-and-a-half years old, he was diagnosed with juvenile retinoschisis, a genetic disease that affects his eyes, making him prone to retinal detachments and unable to play many team sports. On the same day the Sabins received Pierce’s diagnosis, they also received news that he had a detached retina that required urgent surgery. During a checkup appointment following that procedure, Pierce’s family learned his retina had detached again, and he got another surgery. Eventually, Pierce lost vision in his right eye altogether, and the vision in his left eye has worsened over the years.

February is Low Vision Awareness Month, and just like with Team IMPACT, Pierce and his family are advocating all month long to bring awareness to conditions like juvenile retinoschisis. “Millions of people in the United States are living with a visual impairment, which can make doing every day activities challenging,” Jill shared. “Visual impairments cannot be fixed with glasses or contacts alone. The interesting thing is only a small percentage of individuals with blindness have no vision at all. People with low vision can often see light, shapes, and/or colors. In Pierce’s case, although he has no vision in his right eye, he is not considered to be legally blind because the visual acuity in his left eye is greater than 20/200.”

Neither Pierce’s family nor his doctors have any way of knowing what the future holds in terms of Pierce’s vision, but they take it one day at a time, preparing for any potential future. This means Pierce needs to learn to read and write in Braille and prepare himself to navigate a world without sight. Pierce’s vision teacher told Jill that Pierce was very resistant to his Braille work and was falling behind. He dreaded his Braille work and struggled to come to terms with the idea that he may lose his vision one day—until his teammates stepped up.

Jill reached out to them, explained the situation, and now when Pierce is doing his Braille work, the BU soccer team calls him on FaceTime to learn and practice with him. “They’ll ask questions about how he Brailled a book. What does it mean? How did it go?” Jill said, “He’ll start telling them what some Braille contractions are, really educating them on what he’s done.” What started as one of the most dreaded parts of Pierce’s day instantly became one of his favorites. He didn’t hate having to do Braille homework because it meant he got to spend time with his teammates. He almost forgot that he was learning because he was so excited to be teaching. “It’s really given him a sense of empowerment and pride because he’s teaching them something,” Jill said. “He’s the younger one, and he’s learned so much from them. It gives Pierce a moment to talk about something they don’t know or they don’t understand, and it’s given them a glimpse into his world as well.” Through these FaceTime calls, Pierce and BU soccer are learning Braille together. Pierce and his teammates are preparing for anything the future may throw at them together.

And together, the team has helped Pierce come out of his shell, gain confidence, and find a future he once struggled to see. And all the positive changes Jill has noticed in her son, she’s also noticed in her entire family. “There is that feeling that parents of medically complex kids don’t really talk about—that stress is so permanent that you don’t even realize it’s there until you’re in a position to let go of it. This experience has allowed us the opportunity as parents to breathe and our kids to form lifelong relationships.”

One relationship that stands out, no only to Pierce but to the entire Sabin family, is their connection with Head Coach Kevin Nylen. At a recent Team IMPACT event in Boston, Jill and Coach Nylen spoke on the many ways the team and the Sabin family are completely and forever changed by their experience together. Jill shared how, after one particularly difficult doctors’ appointment, she stopped by campus, hoping a visit with the guys would help lift Pierce’s spirits. The Sabins arrived and were excitedly greeted with hugs and hellos from the Terriers. Pierce ran to go play with his teammates, and a member of the team hugged Jill and whispered, “We’ve got Pierce, you’re good.” Jill said in that moment, she felt all the stress of the day—stress she didn’t even realize she was carrying—melt away, and she knew her son was safe. “I felt like, ‘Wow, I can breathe. I have a few minutes to collect myself,’” Jill remembered.

Pierce, Jill, Coach Nylen, and the BU Soccer team pose for photos at a Team IMPACT event

Even though these friendships are about more than big wins on the soccer field, the big wins are always fun too. This season, the Terriers won the Patriot League Championship and immediately looked to Pierce to lead the celebrations. The second the scoreboard hit 0:00, Pierce stormed the field with his teammates, who scooped him up in big hugs, dished out high-fives, and made sure he was included in every celebration. “For Pierce, being a part of the team and experiencing that moment of absolute joy with his teammates is something he will remember forever,” Jill recalled. “As a parent and a bystander, having coach yell out looking for your child to make sure he received his championship hat and t-shirt and had a spot in front holding the trophy for team photos was incredible. To know that in the chaos and excitement Pierce was still in the forefront of their minds was exciting.”

Pierce celebrates the 2023 Patriot League Championship with his teammates

Every day, with his teammates by his side, Pierce is gaining confidence and growing more and more excited for his future and anything that comes with it. “When we were first matched, there were a lot of awkward silences and one-sided conversations with the team,” Jill recalled. “Pierce is now his best advocate. He initiates a lot of great conversations with the guys now. He’s built really personal relationships with them based off these conversations (he uses Matt’s aversion to eating greens as an argument to support not eating his veggies). He’s been on the news to share his story. He’s advocated to his principal to organize a full school assembly about his diagnosis, and he’s spoken at numerous Team IMPACT events. The opportunities presented to Pierce through Team IMPACT and our match have helped mold him into the confident kid he is today.”

Jill says there aren’t enough words in the world to tell the team what they’ve done for Pierce, but she’ll start with a simple and heartfelt thank you. “Each one of you has had an undeniable positive impact on our family,” she said. “You have welcomed us into your lives, taken Pierce for ice cream or dinner after doctors’ visits, helped with Braille homework, shown up for his milestones and birthdays, allowed us the incredible opportunity to spend time with your families, experience devastating loses and learn from them to come back and win a championship, and countless other memories. We are a better family unit because of your love and support.”