The Collegian
Saturday, May 28, 2022

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Men's basketball team adopts 14-year-old Nathan Mwenda

Colleen Szurkowski fills out a voter registration form at a stand in the commons with the help of Amanda Kleintop. She is one of 375 students who have registered on campus. (Nikki Waterman/The Collegian)
Colleen Szurkowski fills out a voter registration form at a stand in the commons with the help of Amanda Kleintop. She is one of 375 students who have registered on campus. (Nikki Waterman/The Collegian)

Last season the men's basketball team adopted Nathan Mwenda, 14, and the team's time with him has developed from a responsibility to a relationship, head coach Chris Mooney said.

Mwenda and the men's team were matched through a non-profit charitable organization called Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, Mooney said.

Senior Dan Geriot and Mark Kwolek, associate director of athletic public relations and director of new media, worked together to enter the team into the program two years ago, Mooney said.

Geriot heard of the program through the women's lacrosse team and took the idea to Kwolek, he said.

"I thought it would be a great idea, and I knew that the type of guys on the team would make whatever child that was paired with us feel part of the program," he said.

Mooney said his intentions of teaming up with the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation were aimed at deeply influencing a child's life. He wanted the players to connect with kids beyond just signing autographs, he said.

"I don't want it to be just our guys making appearances," Mooney said of the team's effort toward helping the community.

"I want them to be invested in something for four years." Spending time with Mwenda and his family was a way to make a deeper and lasting connection, Mooney said.

Mwenda recently had to undergo emergency brain surgery, Mooney said. In 2003, Mwenda had a shunt placed in his brain to help alleviate pressure from fluid build up in his brain because of a tumor.

A shunt is a tube that helps regulate fluids in the brain, but Mwenda's needed maintenance because it was malfunctioning, his mother, Charity Mwenda said.

The week Mwenda was rushed to MCV hospital, the team had planned a party for him and his family, which had to be canceled, Mooney said. But that didn't stop three of the Spiders from seeing their smallest teammate, he said.

Seniors Justin Harper, Kevin Anderson and Kevin Smith all went to the hospital to see Mwenda, Mooney said.

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Making the trip to the hospital is exactly what they would have done if one of the players were in the hospital, so Mwenda deserved the same treatment, Smith said.

Harper agreed and said, "As soon as we heard he was in the hospital, we wanted to go to see him."

He said he felt he had to be there for Mwenda, but also for his mother.

Smith shares Harper's care and concern for the family, he said.

"Nathan's in a situation that is unfair to him, that he has no control over," Smith said. "But what we do is not a thing of pity. He is a really good kid and you hope the best for him. Whatever I can do to help I want to do."

When the team heard about Mwenda being bullied at school, the players were quick to help him, Mooney said.

Anderson and Harper, along with sophomore Jonathan Benjamin, juniors Francis-Cedric Martel and Darrius Garrett and senior Conor Smith, all showed up at Henrico High School Center for the Arts and ate lunch with Mwenda to put an end to the teasing, Mooney said.

The trip was a success, Mwenda said.

"Everybody went crazy when they saw them, " he said. "It was nice to have the attention one time."

Mooney said that the team did its best to make Mwenda feel special and part of the team, and Harper's words proved just that.

"We just wanted to make him feel like he is part of our family," he said.

And Mwenda will be the first to tell you they are doing a good job.

"They kind of feel like my big brothers," he said.

Mwenda has his own jersey, No. 2, has gone to team meals and sits in the best seats available when he and his family attend games, Mooney said.

They do everything they can to make sure Mwenda feels as if he is on the team, he said.

Mwenda's mother never expected to feel so included, she said. She said she was extremely grateful for everything the program had done for her son and family.

"They are helping Nathan, but they are helping me too," she said.

The basketball games became a place to free their minds from her son's illness, she said. Ever since joining the program and coming to the games, things felt right, she said.

Mwenda's mother explained the social difficulties Nathan has at school, but being around the Richmond team, he has been embraced regardless of how he looks, she said.

"He is free with them," she said.

Contact reporter Rachael Bilney at rachael.bilney@richmond.edu

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