Video by Zack Eagles
Midway through Emily Mathewson’s freshman year at Vanderbilt in 2017, the lacrosse student-athlete felt something was missing.
Mathewson had been heavily involved as a student at Garnet Valley High School on the outskirts of Philadelphia, earning nine letters in lacrosse, soccer and basketball and stacking up extracurricular activities like student council. But though her academic and athletic schedules kept her busy at Vanderbilt, Mathewson still sensed a need for something more.
“I’d come to the locker room early just to hang out with the girls,” Mathewson said. “People would come in and say, ‘I had a bad test’ or ‘I had a hard lift.’ I thought, we need a change of perspective.”
Mathewson began searching for a way for her lacrosse team to give back. Through her research, she stumbled upon the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, a nonprofit that helps improve the quality of life for children battling pediatric cancers. The foundation features an “Adopt-A-Child” program that pairs children with college sports teams. After clearing it with her coaches, Mathewson decided to sign up the Vanderbilt lacrosse team.
The process involved a nearly two-year waiting game. But this past January, Mathewson received an email from the foundation about a girl named Bella, who had been undergoing cancer treatment at nearby Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Last fall, Bella had been diagnosed with symptoms of Chiari Malformation, a condition in which parts of the brain push into areas normally occupied by the spinal cord. A mass was detected on Bella’s spine along with spotting on her brain. Bella had been undergoing chemotherapy at Vanderbilt’s children’s hospital, and Friends of Jaclyn informed Mathewson that Bella and her family could use some support.
Immediately, Mathewson organized her teammates – they hosted a 13th birthday party for Bella on campus in February. Soon Mathewson and her teammates were making regular visits to the hospital to see Bella, often stopping by during her chemotherapy sessions. Vanderbilt also gave her a special locker in the team locker room, complete with her own nameplate, at the Vanderbilt Lacrosse Complex.
“She’s a rock,” Mathewson said. “She’s the strongest girl I’ve ever met. She was diagnosed a little while ago, and you would never know. Her outlook on life is so incredible. Our team has embraced her, and she has changed our lives.”
The Commodores’ relationship with Bella has coincided with a historic start to their 2019 lacrosse season. Vanderbilt has authored its best 10-game start (8-2) in program history under first-year head coach Beth Hewitt. Mathewson, a human organizational development major who plans to attend dental school, leads the team in goals (20) and shots on goal (32) while ranking second in points (32). This Sunday, Mathewson and the Dores look to continue their streak with a trip to face conference foe East Carolina.
“We knew how good we can be,” Mathewson said. “Everyone is buying in this year, and that’s the big difference … It’s been a dream come true to be a student-athlete at Vanderbilt. I’ve obviously wanted to play college lacrosse forever, and being able to come to a school like this, you get it all. You get SEC sports, you’re in a city like Nashville and you get top-15 academics.”
Success and all, Mathewson’s junior season has meant more with Bella along for the ride. Earlier this month, Bella attended her first lacrosse game at Vanderbilt. Mathewson couldn’t help but grin when she spotted the team’s No. 1 fan in the stands. Afterward, the Dores celebrated with Bella on the field.
Now Mathewson said Bella’s outlook in the face of adversity has changed the mindset of the Commodores, on and off the field.
“It gives us a different perspective on life,” Mathewson said. “Sometimes it’s easy to get caught in the Vandy bubble, especially as a student-athlete. We’re all perfectionists and we push ourselves to the max. But seeing Bella’s locker and her name allows us to take a step back and realize, we’re good. We have this awesome teammate we need to give our all for. She’s given us a lot more than we could’ve asked for.”