As his name was announced, nine-year-old Lucas Reiling zoomed in his wheelchair through two lines of Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School varsity basketball players, who high-fived him as he passed.
Reiling, of New Providence, was diagnosed with brain cancer when he was 23 months old. The basketball team “adopted” Lucas through Friends of Jaclyn, a support organization for pediatric cancer patients that has a long history with the school.
Helping celebrate the “adoption” on Sept. 24 were Lucas’s parents, Amy and Joseph Reiling; his two sisters, Eden, 11, and Hannah, three; his aunt; his grandfather; and his nurse. After hearing his story, the players introduced themselves and then gathered for a short ceremony, in which Lucas donned his new team jersey.
Lucas is welcome at all team games, practices, and events, where the school will offer its ongoing friendship and support. “Our mission is to improve the child’s quality of life,” said Dennis Murphy, founder of Friends of Jaclyn. The group is named for his daughter, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor as a nine-year-old in 2004. Jaclyn, about to celebrate her 21st birthday, is now a senior at Marist College.
Dennis, Jaclyn, and her younger sister Taryn have all spoken with students at the school, invited by Rabbi Richard Kirsch, who also organized the adoption.
“Rabbi Rich has been waiting a long time to adopt a child,” Murphy told NJJN.
Kirsch wears several hats at Kushner, including director of athletics, a member of the guidance team, and a Judaics and sociology teacher.
“I love basketball,” said team coach Jan Sandusky, who waived practice for the day in order to carry out the adoption. “But I want these kids to see beyond the court. There’s more to life than just putting a ball in the hoop.”
Lucas has undergone three brain surgeries, three years of chemotherapy, and six weeks of radiation. Although it hasn’t affected him cognitively, the treatments have taken a physical toll.
“He drives his power chair like a motocross superstar,” said his mother.
He eats mostly through a tube, and he breathes through a ventilator for most of the day. According to his mother, the disease is stable but the condition is chronic.
“As long as the mass does not grow, he can live like this forever,” she said.
Lucas is starting Hebrew school this year at Temple Sinai in Summit, where the family belongs.
Friends of Jaclyn was founded after Jaclyn was adopted by a collegiate lacrosse team. In addition to pairing children with high school and college sports teams, the organization offers programs for siblings of children with cancer, and a “Guardian Angel” support program for families.
Since its founding, Friends of Jaclyn has organized 630 adoptions nationwide. The program was expanded to arts and cultural organizations “because lots of kids don’t care for sports,” Murphy said.
For Amy Reiling, the organization is a bright spot in a depressing landscape.
“Most of the foundations for children with brain cancer have been founded by parents who have lost a child. It’s an inspiration to have one built by a family who hasn’t. It gives us so much hope,” she said.
After the speeches and high-fives, the boys tossed Lucas the ball. Measuring the distance from his arms to the net, he said, “I can’t throw that high!” He held onto the ball instead and zoomed around the gym.
“This is a great opportunity,” said David Lowinger, a Kushner senior from Edison. “If we can make someone feel good who has such troubles and help him to be strong, that’s worth more than $1 million.”
Arthur Greenfield, a senior from West Orange, added, “There are some things more important than basketball.”