“It Meant Everything"

March 22, 2024 by Sara Falligant

Team IMPACT connects kids with serious illnesses and disabilities to Hopkins sports teams

Last August, fifth-grader Mackenzie “Kenzie” Opdyke donned a black jersey — a favorite of the Johns Hopkins field hockey team — and signed with the program. Number 28.

Team IMPACT participant Mackenzie "Kenzie" Opdyke posing with a field hockey stick in a black field hockey uniform
Kenzie Opdyke was diagnosed with diffuse midline glioma, a rare but aggressive form of brain cancer, when she was 9 years old. She joined the Johns Hopkins field hockey team the following year as part of the Team IMPACT program.

“She felt so special. This is a kid that was really quiet, and half of her face wouldn’t move. Sometimes she wouldn’t smile because of that,” Kenzie’s mother, Alejandra Opdyke, says. “That was not the case on Signing Day. This kid had the biggest smile, and she was wearing her uniform.”

In July 2022, Kenzie was diagnosed with diffuse midline glioma, a rare but aggressive form of brain cancer that caused partial paralysis on the left side of her body. An oncology social worker at the Johns Hopkins Hospital recommended the Opdykes connect their sports-loving daughter with Team IMPACT, a nonprofit program that matches children facing serious illness and disability with college sports teams, including several at Johns Hopkins. The multiyear program’s goal is to guide children and teams in building a mutually beneficial relationship of belonging, empowerment, and resilience.

The Signing Day ceremony officially welcomed Kenzie and marked the first time that Hopkins’ field hockey team was matched with a Team IMPACT participant. The Blue Jays’ volleyball, water polo, soccer, lacrosse, and football teams also participate in the program, along with more than 60,000 student-athletes at more than 700 college campuses across the country.

In the months leading up to Signing Day and the start of the season, members of the field hockey team got to know the shy 10-year-old and her younger sister, Adeline, in small groups — cheering at lacrosse games, eating ice cream, and making pottery. The student-athletes even supported a 5K fundraiser in Kenzie’s honor. By the time field hockey season arrived in the fall, Kenzie was comfortable with the entire team.

Team IMPACT participant Mackenzie Kenzie Opdyke smiles with Johns Hopkins field hockey player Maura Minter
Forward Maura Minter, who graduated in December, says she drew inspiration from Kenzie to get through her final season on the team.

The team found comfort in her, too. For forward Maura Minter, who graduated in December 2023, her fourth and final season on the team was challenging, both mentally and physically.

“Sometimes it was just hard to get through it,” says Minter, who also served as a Team IMPACT fellow alongside about 100 other student-athletes. Team IMPACT fellows represent the program on their campuses and collaborate with the athletic department and campus community to raise awareness and increase participation. “Kenzie provided such a huge light for me to get through the entire season. I know I always will keep her in the back of my head during tough moments.”

Kenzie’s influence spread throughout the team, shifting their perspective and encouraging them to rethink negatives. She was on the sidelines for the team’s only regular-season loss. Head Coach Jane Wells, a 20-year coaching veteran, says her presence changed the nature of the post-game conversation.

Johns Hopkins field hockey coach Jane Wells smiles alongside Alejandra Opdyke as Team IMPACT participant Mackenzie Kenzie Opdyke signs with the field hockey team
Kenzie officially signed with the team in August alongside Head Coach Jane Wells, left, and her mother, Alejandra Opdyke, right.

“There are certainly those times from a coach’s perspective where you think about this intense, adult environment that’s not built for a 10-year-old. But it made me think about how we can make those times better,” she says. “In every tough moment, I imagined Kenzie was there at my side.”

The team was always excited to see Kenzie, Wells adds, even as her health began to decline during the season. When their youngest teammate was no longer able to cheer alongside them at Homewood Field, the athletes made sure Kenzie knew she was on their minds. Opdyke remembers her daughter watching the team win the Centennial Conference Championship from the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. She spotted her teammates holding signs with her name.

“It was so special to her,” Opdyke says.

Kenzie passed away three days later. Her funeral was the same day as the second round of the NCAA tournament, which Hopkins hosted, but the team wanted to celebrate Kenzie’s life and support her family. Minter and a few other members left the game at halftime.

Team IMPACT participant Mackenzie Kenzie Opdyke in a Johns Hopkins field hockey uniform smiles with sister Adeline, who wears a pink dress
Kenzie, left, smiles with younger sister Adeline.

“It’s that level of sacrifice and commitment from our athletes to make sure that we were represented as a group at the service, even though we all couldn’t be there,” Wells says. “I was thankful for the team’s decision to go.”

The Blue Jays won both the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games that weekend. Team IMPACT sent the Opdykes to Newport News, Virginia, to cheer the team on in the Final Four. Minter says having the family there “meant everything.”

“It was possible because of Team IMPACT,” she says. “It’s so meaningful, and I just hope that more families can get matched to teams, and those teams and families can experience how special the program is.”

Though the season has ended, the Opdykes have remained connected to Wells and her team, even joining them for their end-of-year banquet. Opdyke says the entire family has benefitted from the relationship, and she is hopeful more teams will participate in the Team IMPACT program.

“Adeline has big sisters now,” Opdyke says. “We cannot thank them enough. A lot of Team IMPACT kids are living with disabilities. But kids like Kenzie, who might not have enough time left, can try to forget for just a little bit. It should be something that everybody should have access to, because surely the athletes learned something from Kenzie, too.”


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Topics: Alumni, Parents, Students, Blue Jays Unlimited (Athletics), Strengthening Partnerships