By Mark Haas
GOLDEN, Colo. (CBS4) – Ella Weigel is only 10 years old, but she’s already a member of a college basketball team, and she unfortunately knows more medical terms than most adults.
“When I was a baby I was born with Choanal atresia, which is when you are born the tube in the back of your nose closes up,” Ella explains. “I had to have 13 surgeries for that.”
When Ella was 5, she was diagnosed with leukemia.
“It is not a cancer kids get much, but I was one of them,” Ella again explains. “It was tough, because you are like ‘What am I going to do now?'”
“You are just stuck in the hospital, it’s…ughhh,” Ella says, finally using a description more fitting for a kid.
Thanks to a bone marrow transplant from her older brother, Cale, Ella was able to beat the leukemia. In 2014, she “signed” with the Colorado School of Mines basketball team as part of Team Impact, a program that pairs kids with life-threatening or chronic illnesses with college sports teams.
“The best part is that they support me and I know it,” says Ella. “So during the tough times, it doesn’t seem like anything.”
Ella still has health complications, but her mom says being part of the Mines basketball team has made all the difference.
“If she is having a rough day, she’ll ask ‘Mom do we have practice today?'” her mom Bobbie Weigel said. “And I tell her ‘Yes, you get to see the girls,’ and she says ‘Oh okay’, and it is like a weight lifted off her shoulders.”
And the team loves the days Ella is there as well.
“She comes here and has another family,” says Liz Tomon, a junior forward at Mines. “We are like 15 big sisters, and we have all gained a little sister.”
That’s what makes the program so popular, as the impact from a Team Impact signing goes both ways.
“She brings so much energy to our team, she has changed so many people’s lives,” says Tomon. “To see what she’s going through it puts in perspective what we go through with school and basketball. It has been really great.”
“When we decided to do this I didn’t think it would mold into this but that is one of the reasons our program has been successful,” said head coach Brittany Simpson. “We are inspired by her in a lot of ways.”
While these “signings” may seem ceremonial, make no mistake, Ella truly is part of the Orediggers’ program.
“She dresses up for games. If we lose and some of us are crying after the game, she is crying after the game,” said Tomon. “And if we win she is just as excited as everyone else.”
“When we win, I am like ‘Yes!’ and I start thinking we are going to make it to the RMAC tournament,” said Ella. “But when we lose it is like, ‘Okay we will come back and bounce back and get it again, let’s go!'”
Team Impact was founded in 2011, and has matched 1,100 kids with teams at 450 schools in 46 states. In Colorado, 37 kids have found teams at 11 different colleges and universities.