By LILLIAN REESE — One family. One little boy with a cancer diagnosis. Two running teams with the same goal: to change the way young children in Hyattsville feel about their athletic abilities.
The friendly greetings of Monica Serrano, her husband, Mickey Torrealba, and their three children — Victoria, Angelo and Giovanni — can often be heard behind the counter as the family mans the register or swipes credit cards at their Venezuelan restaurant, Cafe Azul – Caracas de Ayer, in Hyattsville’s Arts District. The family is doing much more than supplying the community with delicious empanadas and renowned arepas, however.
The children have always been active: 7-year-old Victoria plays tennis, and she began running cross country in the first grade; the boys love to play together. But in May 2016, just after Angelo’s third birthday, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. During certain phases of his treatment, Angelo would still accompany his big sister on her runs.
However, when he began receiving chemo later in his treatment, Angelo’s energy levels shifted, and he began to shy away from running.
Serrano and Torrealba began to grow worried that Angelo was lacking confidence when it came to participating in physical activities. Refusing to let her son feel defined by his illness, but mindful of his limitations, Serrano signed Angelo up for the beginner fitness and running club she helped start at her children’s school.
“I feel like your childhood is [a time] you need to enjoy,” Serrano said. “Especially with an illness like this, you look at life differently. I wanted him to enjoy his childhood and do as much as any other normal kid.”
In the spring of 2018, Serrano helped launch a beginner running team at St. Jerome Academy (SJA) for students in kindergarten through third grade.
“Monica started the club because she wanted to give students a chance to be active outside of recess. They run relay races, have agility courses and run for longer distances,” said SJA Vice Principal Michelle Trudeau. “It’s been really great for our students.”
The club aims to instill healthy habits in young children and promote running as a social event. According to Serrano and Trudeau, the after-school running program is a hit.
“We do it to motivate the little kids. We just opened registration for this spring, and it’s already full,” Serrano with a disbelieving laugh. “We have 40 kids!”
According to Serrano, Angelo became much more open to running when he was able to do it with his friends. Behind his hidden, shy smile, Angelo’s self-assurance began to shine through.
Coincidentally, in November 2018, while Angelo was a part of the SJA beginner running club, he was drafted by the University of Maryland (UMD) track and field team through Team IMPACT, a nonprofit organization that places children with chronic illnesses with university athletic programs. According to its website, Team IMPACT aims to foster lifelong connections among participating children, their families and athletic team members.
Since he joined the team at Maryland, Angelo has enjoyed running around the track, stretching and performing agility exercises with his teammates. According to Serrano, each time Angelo goes to practice and sees his friends, he is more encouraged to be active than he was before.
Team IMPACT track representative Leah Blackall agrees. “We run a warm-up lap with [Angelo], and we all stretch together. He loves this. He never stops smiling. I can see he’s really happy to be a part of something so great,” she said.
Both teams have made running fun for the 5-year-old. Serrano said that the SJA club made running feel like a social event for him, and when the team at UMD stepped in, they welcomed Angelo with open arms and empowered him. Angelo is eager to practice with the UMD team, and he’s excited about having his own personal locker.
“They probably forget about the fact that he’s on treatment because now he is just like any other 5-year-old because he wants to go out and run around and hang out,” said Serrano.
Angelo and the two running teams will be coming together on May 3 for UMD’s Kehoe Twilight Meet, during which the SJA running club is scheduled to participate in a special race.
Blackall, a junior triple-jumper with the Terps, looks forward to the event: “When [the SJA] running club comes to our home meet, it will be such a fun and amazing thing for them to experience. To be recognized and cheered on by a crowd of fans will definitely boost their confidence. We are all so excited to have them here.”