A perfect match

Sis­ter act: 11-year-old Arianna Bar­ri­celli is a con­stant pres­ence in the Holy Fam­ily lock­er room after be­ing ad­op­ted by the team. Arianna is fight­ing has been fight­ing a non-can­cer­ous brain tu­mor since Novem­ber 2011. AL SCHELL / THE TIMES

El­ev­en-year-old Arianna Bar­ri­celli wanted a cell phone. Her fath­er said “no way.”

But if there’s one thing Lou Bar­ri­celli has found out about his old­est daugh­ter over the last year or so, it’s that her fierce de­term­in­a­tion would not be eas­ily shaken.

In Novem­ber 2011, Arianna was dia­gnosed with op­tic nerve glioma, a non-can­cer­ous brain tu­mor that was a “total case of bad luck, noth­ing ge­net­ic or hered­it­ary,” ac­cord­ing to her fath­er. 

The tu­mor, while not con­sidered life-threat­en­ing, has wreaked hav­oc on Arianna’s op­tic nerve to the point where she is blind in her right eye. Rounds of chemo­ther­apy at Chil­dren’s Hos­pit­al of Phil­adelphia over the past year have been gruel­ing, but it was through her ill­ness that Arianna got to know a new fam­ily, one that would help her ac­quire the cell phone she so des­per­ately wanted.

Through CHOP, the Bar­ra­cel­lis be­came aware of the Friends of Jaclyn Or­gan­iz­a­tion, which seeks to “im­prove the qual­ity of life for chil­dren with pe­di­at­ric brain tu­mors,” ac­cord­ing to the group’s web­site. Friends of Jaclyn places the ill chil­dren with loc­al sports teams, which “ad­opt” them and make them a part of their sea­sons.

Arianna, a soc­cer fan­at­ic, ended up be­ing placed with the Holy Fam­ily Uni­versity wo­men’s bas­ket­ball team be­fore the 2012-13 sea­son. Al­though ini­tially hes­it­ant be­cause she was un­fa­mil­i­ar with bas­ket­ball, Arianna took to the team right away, and it’s easy to see why.

“I wanted a phone really, really bad, and all of my friends at school have them,” Arianna said dur­ing a re­cent chat on Holy Fam­ily’s cam­pus. “Then it just came to me … in­spir­a­tion!”

Also an avid sing­er, Arianna pro­posed the fol­low­ing deal to Lou: If she could get 1,000 You­Tube views on her own rendi­tion of Mari­ah Carey’s “All I Want for Christ­mas is You” that spoke of her de­sire for a phone, she’d get one. No chance, her fath­er thought … she’d get 100 views, tops. But once the Holy Fam­ily girls found out about Arianna’s cause, they shared her video on Face­book and Twit­ter. She had 1,000 views by the next day.

Sorry, Dad.

“Now I have more than 3,000 views,” Arianna said as she hap­pily fiddled with her iPhone. “So, really, I should get three phones.”

When spend­ing time with Arianna, it’s hard to be­lieve she’s even sick. Her per­son­al­ity is en­ga­ging, bub­bly even. She smiles con­stantly, and is en­thu­si­ast­ic on seem­ingly every top­ic. She has at­tacked her af­flic­tion with the same tenacity her new­found friends dis­play on the court.  

Like most girls her age, Arianna en­joys play­ing sports, go­ing to the mall with her friends, and now, tex­ting … “typ­ic­al tween stuff,” as she so aptly put it. 

While her long-term pro­gnos­is is still iffy (the tu­mor stub­bornly re­fuses to go away des­pite the chemo, and now a cyst has formed be­hind it), Arianna’s im­mer­sion in­to Holy Fam­ily’s pro­gram has worked won­ders for all parties in­volved. For par­ents Lou and Sue, it’s giv­en them reas­on to smile for a change; for the team, it’s offered im­port­ant life per­spect­ive; for Arianna, it’s much sim­pler.

“It was something dif­fer­ent, something fun that kept my mind off the bad and brought out the good that’s com­ing through,” she said. “I’ve liked and en­joyed everything about it. They helped me get a phone. They’ve be­come my big sis­ters and now all of my friends are jeal­ous and want to meet them and come to the games to see me with them.”

Arianna has been a source of in­spir­a­tion for the team. She at­tends most of Holy Fam­ily’s home games, stand­ing with the play­ers for the Na­tion­al An­them be­fore join­ing them in huddles and on the bench. Now that she’s no longer con­fused by the sport, Arianna has be­come the team’s biggest cheer­lead­er.

Whatever she’s do­ing seems to be work­ing, as Holy Fam­ily has sprin­ted out to a phe­nom­en­al 24-2 sea­son (ranked sixth in the na­tion among all Di­vi­sion II schools), in­clud­ing a per­fect 13-0 mark at home, where the Ti­gers’ num­ber one fan is usu­ally in at­tend­ance.

“Big things come in small pack­ages,” said seni­or guard Ana Cruz. “There aren’t enough words to de­scribe her. It re­minds me to take noth­ing for gran­ted; you think you have it bad, then see­ing her you real­ize oth­er people have gone through so much worse. It doesn’t af­fect her char­ac­ter or who she is. She’s still so happy. She’s in­flu­enced us to do great things.”

The Bar­ra­cel­lis, of Ben­s­alem, have needed the ex­tra sup­port just as much as Arianna. Lou and Sue are also par­ents to 10-year-old Alessia and 5-year-old Luigi, and Arianna’s ill­ness has of­ten over­whelmed them. As Sue said, “If one of my kids has a fever it’s a night­mare for me.”

They ap­pre­ci­ate the way the team has gone out of its way to help, from the cell phone cam­paign to an in­vit­a­tion to at­tend seni­or Erin Mann’s fam­ily Christ­mas party. Ori­gin­ally hes­it­ant to go, Sue said she was  floored by how wel­com­ing every­one was to her and her fam­ily.

“The power of the pos­it­ive is how we live our lives now,” Sue said. “She’s changed us all, and so has this team. Them com­ing in­to the pic­ture has made her ec­stat­ic to the point where it wipes away any bad news we get.”

“It really has be­come a fam­ily,” Lou ad­ded. “They call and text her, and all of those little things help. If it were me I’d prob­ably be in bed with the cov­ers pulled over my head, but not her. That’s not her way. Has she got­ten scared? Have there been bad days? Sure. There’ve been days she’s walked in­to the hos­pit­al and I’ve had to carry her out. So it’s just been phe­nom­en­al to see her in­ter­act with this team.”

The feel­ing has been mu­tu­al.

“It’s al­lowed our kids to look at the big pic­ture out­side of their own little worlds,” Holy Fam­ily head coach Mark Miller said. “We just wanted our pro­gram to be a dis­trac­tion for the fam­ily to get them away from a tough part of their day. It gives you per­spect­ive in life. As a fath­er my­self, I can’t ima­gine what they’re go­ing through, so whatever we’re able to do for their fam­ily is worth it.”

As Mann ad­ded, “She’s giv­en us someone to rally for … someone to play for.”

Arianna is not out of the woods; far from it, in fact. Lou said her cur­rent situ­ation was “in limbo,” and al­though he and every­one else knows that be­ing part of the Holy Fam­ily team won’t dis­solve Arianna’s tu­mor by it­self, the in­clu­sion has done won­ders for her and the fam­ily’s col­lect­ive psyches. The walls in her bed­room are now ad­orned with Holy Fam­ily-re­lated pic­tures and posters, and the team has be­come a part of her the same way she has be­come a part of their lives. It’s a re­la­tion­ship that is likely to  ex­tend far bey­ond this sea­son, as the team and Arianna are now linked for life.

“At first, I wasn’t sure what would go on,” said Arianna, who is already look­ing for­ward to sign­ing up to play bas­ket­ball next winter. “It was kind of like go­ing to a new school. What would they say? Would they like me? But once we got to know each oth­er bet­ter, it just be­came a fun activ­ity for us all. Every­one was so nice, and they care about me. When I think about it, I get happy that they’re all there for me.

“It gets my mind off everything that’s go­ing wrong and all the bad that’s happened. When I think about it, I real­ize that oth­er kids sick­er than me need this more than I do, but then I real­ize how much it’s helped me and it makes me happy. Every mo­ment counts, and so far I’ve en­joyed all of them.” ••

Sports Ed­it­or Ed Mor­rone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or em­or­rone@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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