"It was a tear-jerking moment for me and the 100 'tough guys' in the room," said Little Vikings Football President Michael Pietrowicz, describing a moving experience he had Tuesday night at the Zeris Inn in Mountain Lakes.
The Parsippany youth football league, part of the Morris County Youth Football League, gathered at a banquet to honor and help the family of Mt. Tabor's Sean Ries, a 5-year-old with a twinkle in his eye, an indomitable spirit and a tumor in his brain.
Last February, Sean was diagnosed with a low-grade, slow growing brain cancer called glioma—a condition that affects only 1,000 U.S. children. Since then, the Ries family has spent much time, effort and money in getting him the medical treatment he needs.
MYCFL and Little Vikings Football stepped in to help, and since February, the league has raised $7,000, including a check for $6,000 presented Tuesday. to help what the Ries family calls TEAM Sean.
"The Morris County Youth Football League has developed a wonderful charity program," explained Pietrowicz, Sean's flag football coach. "Donations collected throughout the year by the 23 football organizations plus other fundraising efforts have enabled the league to grant some very special and meaningful cash gifts to people throughout Morris, Warren, Sussex and Somerset counties who in one way or another are connected with the league."
And the $6,000 given to the family Tuesday meant a lot, he added.
"The family was so blown away," said Pietrowicz.
"It was indeed a very special night for us," said Brenda Ries, Sean's mom. "We were overwhelmed and humbled by the generosity shown to our family during this very difficult year."
And it has been a trying time: Sean endured weeks of tests, as his parents traveled the country to find the right doctors to treat him. They ultimately took him to New York's Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where Sean underwent a two-stage extensive brain surgery in May. About 80 percent of the originally egg-sized tumor was removed successfully.
But Sean still faces a long road. He continues to take anti-seizure medications and is facing some cognitive and neurological challenges as a result of all he's endured. The remaining portion of the tumor is intertwined with healthy tissue in parts of the boy's brain that control speech, motor activity and vision—and doctors don't believe they can remove it safely.
Presently, Sean receives an MRI every three months to make sure what was left doesn't grow. He has therapy sessions to address his cognitive and neurological issues. He may need radiation treatment when he is older. And his mother says that if surgery is needed in the future, it could leave Sean with a serious neurological deficit requiring substantial rehabilitation.
So far, so good, though, the family reports: Sean started kindergarten in September at Mt. Tabor School alongside his friends. He also receives some special-needs educational assistance. Brain scans so far show no new or progressive tumor growth.
As the TEAM Sean site says, the family tries to make the most of every day, fighting and praying for a cure.
Brenda Ries said that the league's support of Sean has given the entire family needed support.
"Our Little Vikings family has been so important to us," she said. "They have been a lifeline, not only helping us financially, but also with meals, hugs, encouragement, shoulders to cry on and so many prayers. I just don’t have the words... 'Thank you' doesn’t seem like enough."
Ries said the family and supporters have been working to get Sean through the healing process from day one.
"From that first week in the hospital, TEAM Sean was formed," she said. "It started out with those closest to us rallying to help us navigate this nightmare when we were just too shattered to think. It was finding doctors to consult, getting appointments set up, learning more about this disease and searching to find the best treatment options. From there it grew to include everyone that loves and supports Sean, all those that are following his story and all the doctors that have been involved in his treatment. And everyone at MCYFL Charities is most definitely part of the TEAM."
The word TEAM, capitalized, has a special meaning for the Ries clan.
"It was my sister that came up with the motto for TEAM Sean: Together Everyone Achieves Miracles. I believe it to be true every time I look at Sean."
Sean's story is recounted on the TEAM Sean website, which offers updates on his health, how he's doing in school and various fundraising efforts to help the family deal with the high cost of health care.
If you'd like to help, cards, letters, and donations (made out to TEAMSean) can be mailed to: TEAMSean, P.O. Box 41, Mt. Tabor, N.J. 07878.