‘Pediatric Pep Talk’ connects children’s hospitals with college athletes

Max Manyak holds up Ian McMillen's signed "team contract," making Ian an official member of the Notre Dame Men's Lacrosse Team.
Published: Dec. 2, 2022 at 11:18 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WNDU) - A childhood cancer diagnosis is a parent’s worst nightmare, filled with anxiety, fear, and difficult decisions.

But a student-athlete-run organization is giving local kids and their parents hope by supplying something hard for them to come by; an abundance of smiles, inspiration, and laughter.

According to the National Library of Medicine, “endorphins are released during laughter or smile, and it helps to reduce stress level and minimize pain, which is why laughter therapy is used commonly for patients with chronic illnesses.”

Pediatric Pep Talk is working to connect children’s hospitals and the chronically ill patients and families they serve with athletes across the country.

“We are a 501c3-pending nonprofit that takes a new approach on Name, Image, and Likeness, to do good and spread smiles one kid at a time,” Notre Dame Senior, Men’s Lacrosse Captain, and founder of Pediatric Pep Talk Maxim Manyak said.

13-year-old Ian McMillen of Granger was ten at the time of his leukemia diagnosis and was introduced through a university program to Notre Dame’s Men’s Lacrosse team and Max.

“We had this wonderful, in-person plan in place, and then when Covid happened, I was sent home,” Manyak added. “He was pretty much locked in his room, isolated, too scared to risk going outside because he was so immuno-compromised, and that truly just broke my heart. I needed to find a way to do something to keep him engaged, you know, he was part of the team, like you need to help out one of your teammates, one of your new brothers.”

And that’s just what Max did. Pediatric Pep Talk was founded in 2022, and the Lacrosse team started making videos to comfort Ian before surgeries and to celebrate after hearing good news.

“I need you to know that you have your 55 older brothers always there for you, we always have your back, we’re always there supporting you,” Manyak said during a video sent to Ian. “You are never alone, and the men’s lacrosse team is there with you.”

Ian’s family has welcomed Max and the lacrosse team with open arms, and Max says that he believes Ian’s impact on him is invaluable.

“There’s nothing more inspiring than seeing a little kid battle cancer for pretty much my entire college career and then finally having him cancer-free,” Manyak explained. “That’s the most rewarding and awesome thing, and it really puts your life into perspective. I complain about my chemistry or my finance class, or oh my god, we had a hard lift, there’s this kid that’s actually battling cancer every day, and actually won, so you know, if he can do it, anyone can, and so can we.”

Max is also a double major studying finance and pre-med and was just elected as a team captain, but even with lacrosse and his studies, he still makes time for those who need it most.

And Ian got to ring the bell on October 21st, signaling he is now cancer-free.

“We just celebrated him being cancer-free,” Manyak said. “We celebrated on October 9th, and he rang the bell on October 21st. So, it’s just so beyond incredible. He’s been an inspiration to all of us, and it’s not just him; it’s his whole family too. His siblings, his parents, they’ve all really joined our family, and we welcome them with wide-open arms.”

One of Ian’s nurses asked Max if he and the team could help make more kids smile, and they gladly accepted, and the program expanded to sixteen Beacon Children’s Hospital kids.

“What started as just a super simple promise between Ian and I, last year it expanded to include 16 teammates at Beacon Children’s, and we’ve been interacting with all 26 varsity teams here on campus,” Manyak said.

Considering how interactions have changed due to the pandemic, Manyak sees this new platform as a tool to reach more kids than they could solely in person.

“We could go back to old ways, but by doing so, we would then be ignoring and forgetting all these other children that we could be putting smiles on their faces, so, by keeping it virtual, we will be reaching many more kids, and continue to pass on a smile a day to keep the doctor away,” Manyak said.

Now, the app-based platform is looking to expand, and it already has other schools joining the mission “to change the lives of children with critical illnesses, their families, and their treatment teams, one smile at a time.”

“We’re looking to move into four more schools, so that should be four new hospitals, 72 teams, something like 2,300 more athletes, and we have a goal of 2,400 smiles by May of 2024,” Manyak said.

“As great as this is, and in order to make this as successful as possible and reach as many kids as we can, were, unfortunately, had to slow down,” Manyak said. “We need to set the foundation and make sure it’s perfect so we can build on top of that. We hope to expand by May 2025 to half of the Power Five conference Schools.”

Manyak says Ian loves going to the zoo, and Max finally fulfilled a promise when he and Ian went to Potawatomi Zoo earlier this year.

Combined with the in-person program Fighting Irish Fight for Life, Pediatric Pep Talk is helping make the best out of difficult and frightening situations.

The University of Notre Dame Men’s Lacrosse Team has events associated with helping Beacon Children’s kids. Those events are:

The Halloween signing party

Fall Field Day

Christmas Party

The Blue and Gold Game

Prom Theme

Max Manyak wanted to thank his teammates, the former coordinator of the Notre Dame GLD Center Collin Stoecker, Notre Dame Men’s Hockey Coach Kevin Corrigan and daughter Sid Corrigan, The Idea Center’s John Henry, Ben Hoggan, and Frani Chandler, Mendoza School Professor Katie Wowak, and Dasha Kudriavtseva, because “Without these people, this couldn’t be possible. Thank you all.”

“The power of a smile is second to none.” - Max Manyak.