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.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org