For three years now, Sheree Peoples has watched her 6-year-old son James in pain. Antibody therapy and chemo can take a heavy toll on an adult body suffering from cancer, and so the effect of the treatments on a child is unimaginably brutal to watch, she said — especially when the child suffering from cancer is your son.
For Sheree Peoples, such glum circumstances make any moment of joy for her boy cause to celebrate. Ever since the student-athletes on SVSU’s baseball team stepped into James’ life, there has been a cause to celebrate.
“James loves them,” Peoples says of her son’s affection for his new friends. “He honestly means it. He said to me the other day, ‘Mom, I love them.’ They’re building this awesome bond with James that I can’t put into words.”
That bond began forming in fall 2017 when baseball coach Chris Elbright received an email from TEAM Impact, a Boston-based nonprofit that connects athletic teams with chronically ill children in an effort to brighten their spirits. Elbright’s team was matched with James, a Flint boy suffering from neuroblastoma, a rare cancer most often diagnosed in children.
On Christmas Eve, two members of the team — Derrek Clyde and Z Westley — visited James and his family for the first time.
“I remember he was quiet at first,” says Clyde, a history education major from Bay City.
“His mom made us ribs and Polish sausage. After we ate, we started playing video games with James. I remember he beat us at a Spider-Man game. You could see him start to break out of his shell. When he decided to talk, you could see him smile. That was a great feeling.”
Clyde and Westley departed the Peoples household, leaving with leftover ribs and a budding friendship. Ever since, the relationship has grown and expanded to other players, coaches and staff.
In March 2018, the team “drafted” James during a ceremonial press conference meant to mimic the pomp and circumstance of a professional sports league player signing. While James was not going to swing at opposing teams’ pitches, his status with the team meant he was invited to visit during practices and watch home games in the dugout alongside the student-athletes.
“Our players may lose on the baseball field, but in the grand scheme of things, there are people in the world with much bigger challenges,” Elbright says. “This is a kid who is only 6 years old, but has been going through chemotherapy almost his entire life. That really puts things in perspective.”
Doctors first diagnosed James with neuroblastoma at the age of 3 when a tumor was discovered in his chest, his mother says. Since then, James has undergone 12 cycles of radiation therapy, eight rounds of chemotherapy, as well as antibody therapy. While tests suggest the treatment is working, James’ outlook remains uncertain, and more treatment is likely.
In the meantime, cancer defines his everyday life. With an immune system weakened by the treatments, James is especially vulnerable to germs, and so he wears a medical face mask when in public. A kindergartner at Pinehurst Elementary School in Mount Morris, James is provided with material so his parents can educate him at home when he is in a medical facility or unable to leave the house. When at school, teachers provide him with space in the corner of the class where he is less exposed to potential germs from classmates. All of those activities are in stark contrast to the life of his twin brother, LeRoyal, who is healthy.
While LeRoyal enjoys a friendship with members of SVSU’s baseball team, James’ friendship is unmistakably special, his mother says.
“It’s so genuine,” she says. “You have to see them together.”
That friendship was on display in late March during James’ 6th birthday party on a Sunday afternoon at Huckleberry Junction Playhouse Theater in Genesee Township. The occasion came one day before James began a week-long antibody therapy treatment stay at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, where he spent his actual birthday. The party was meant to lift James’ spirits for the tough week ahead. Family and loved ones showed up in force. For a while, at least, James’ attention was focused on one guest in particular: Westley, who was able to miss the Cardinals’ road game scheduled that day.
“I couldn’t miss the birthday party,” says Westley, a communication and business double major from Midland. “I wouldn’t want to miss that.”
Westley and his young friend played with his new toys and enjoyed Huckleberry Junction’s playscape together. To save James some energy, Westley became de facto transportation for James, who clung to the 6-foot-3 outfielder’s back while being carried from one ride to the next. A few times, the child’s medical mask slipped beneath his mouth, revealing a smile often hidden when Westley and his teammates are nearby.
“This relationship is so special,” Westley says. “This is a connection that will last longer than a baseball season or career for most of us. This is a lifelong friendship.”