Each year, the State College Area High School girls’ soccer team chooses to play for a cause bigger than itself.
Through its Soccer Becomes Greater initiative, the team selects one charity or individual to sponsor each season. This year, the Lady Little Lions chose to support Jack Sylves, a local 4-year-old with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of cancer in the blood and bone marrow.
Having supported organizations and causes such as Centre Safe and breast cancer awareness in the past, the team wanted to find a family or person they could really connect with this season, Chris Schoonmaker, a State High parent who’s helped organize the initiative said.
“They decided to find a child that was in need, and we reached out to the Sylves family and asked if they would be a part of the program this year,” Chris Schoonmaker said. “We first met with him back in July, and since then he’s really been a part of the whole program, and we try and raise money to help support him.”
During the preseason, the team hosted different themed spirit weeks in which Jack and his sister Marlowe attended, along with periodic practices.
The State High football team also played a part in supporting Jack, as the Little Lions dedicated a #JackStrong game to him against Hollidaysburg in September, and included him in some of the pregame events. Jack ran out with the team at the beginning of the game, did the coin flip, directed the band and showed his spirit on the sidelines throughout the game.
In addition to taking Jack and his family in as part of the State High soccer family, the team also created the Goals for Good campaign, in which people can donate a certain amount of money for every goal the team scores, or give flat fee donations. Along with the campaign, #JackStrong bracelets are also sold at every game for $5
Players, fans and the community at large have clearly responded to Jack’s story, as nearly 900 bracelets have been sold, and $17,555 has been raised for the family through a GoFundMe page.
In response to all the community efforts, Jack’s father, Scott Sylves, who works at Penn State, said the support his family has received has been overwhelming.
“Sometimes it’s so easy to become jaded or wrapped up in your own things that you forget people can be truly amazing and in our case people have been this and more,” Sylves said. “Whether it be family, friends, neighbors, people at Penn State Hershey, Penn State Thon students, our adopted family of students at Schreyer’s, or even perfect strangers, everyone has lifted us through this past year. We are humbled to be part of such a community.”
But for the team, it’s more than raising money.
“We do our best to raise money for Jack and his family, but a big part of it is really having an outlet for him to feel part of another program and have a support group,” Chris Schoonmaker said.
And it’s not just Jack and the Sylves family who’s been befitting from this initiative. Savannah Schoonmaker, senior captain and daughter of Chris Schoonmaker, said Jack’s battle helps motivate her and her teammates to dig deep during games.
“It gives us all one collective goal to work toward,” Savannah Schoonmaker said. “After seeing Jack, it’s so inspiring to want to fight for him because of how strong he’s been, especially after hearing his story. Everybody just really wants to help him and go out there and do everything we can.”
Jack was diagnosed on July 20th, 2018, and now makes visits to the Hershey Medical Center every six weeks to receive intrathecal chemotherapy (chemo administered through his spinal fluid). When at home, Jack attends school on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays according to an Oct. 7 entry on his page at CaringBridge.org.
Seeing the strength of the 4-year-old while he fights for his life has served as a foundation for uniting this year’s soccer team, coach Doug Bates said.
“We’ve really used it as a cornerstone for our season,” he said. “During our halftime talks we talk about if we’re ‘Jack strong’ and ask ourselves why we wear the bracelets. To me, it means we never give up and stop fighting. So those types of things are directly woven into our season.”
Although the team adopts a new initiative each year, Savannah Schoonmaker said the team’s support and efforts for Jack won’t stop at the end of the season.
“We’ve talked about it and we have a good group who’s helping us. Everybody wants to keep it going and there are just so many people involved that it’ll keep going,” she said.
On Tuesday, the Lady Little Lions square off against Carlisle for their final game of the regular season, with junior varsity kicking off at 4:30 p.m., and varsity following right after at the State College Area High School North Field. Jack and his family will be brought out onto the field during halftime of the varsity game.
All the players and coaches will be recognized for their efforts, and the total amount of money raised for Jack and childhood cancer throughout the season will be announced.
Ahead of this game and final fundraising announcement, Sylves said he couldn’t ask for more than what the State High girls’ soccer team has done for his family.
“They couldn’t be more excited each time a home game happens and they get to go cheer and support the team. With everything they have both been through over the past year, it’s great to see them so excited and happy,” he said of Jack and Marlowe. “They both really love all of these girls and are getting the gift of memories that will last a lifetime. I’m not sure we can ever pay them back for that.”