A student at the University of Notre Dame has launched a tech-based nonprofit designed to connect critically ill children with athletes throughout the country. Max Manyak, who plays on Notre Dame’s men’s lacrosse team, created Pediatric Pep Talk after meeting young Ian McMillen three years ago, who at the time was battling leukemia but is now cancer-free. The nonprofit is seeking 501(c)3 status and is already planning expansion to other schools and hospitals in Indiana and elsewhere.
Manyak, who serves as CEO of Pediatric Pep Talk, discussed the nonprofit’s origin in an interview with Inside INdiana Business.
Manyak met Ian, who was 10 years old at the time and being treated at Beacon Children’s Hospital in South Bend, through a Notre Dame program called Fighting Irish Fight for Life that sends student-athletes to visit with patients.
Through the meeting, plans were made for Ian to go to the zoo, attend Notre Dame lacrosse practices and cheer on the team at games. However, the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to those plans as McMillen was confined to the hospital and Manyak had to go home after the Notre Dame campus was shut down.
“I made him a promise, and I had to keep it,” said Manyak. “When we got back to campus, what we started doing to just keep him involved, we started sending him videos every day after practice. And it was just great, and he loved it.”
Before a particularly scary procedure, and at the request of Ian’s dad, Manyak sent a video from every member of his team to encourage Ian.
“It was, for us, not that hard, and he watched that the morning of his surgery. I had received a phone call from his nurse, and she had been hysterically crying. Pretty much her only question was, ‘Max, is there any way you can do this for more than just Ian?’ And was sort of when it really hit me that there was so many more smiles to give and from that, this whole thing just blew up.”
Manyak, a finance pre-professional health dual major, plans to go on to medical school after getting his undergraduate degree and become an orthopedic surgeon.
The Pediatric Pep Talk platform features an app that connects children’s hospitals, their patients and families with student-athletes, allowing the patients to “join” the team.
Manyak partnered with a fellow student to develop the app and also received assistance from the IDEA Center at Notre Dame to develop the business. Very quickly, the scope the nonprofit grew.
“What started as a simple promise between Ian and I expanded last year to include 16 little teammates at Beacon Children’s, which is right down the road from us, and they interact on a monthly basis with all 26 varsity teams here on campus,” he said. “It’s all virtual, which is great. We’re able to reach a lot more kids that couldn’t join us here on campus, and we are able to develop wonderful connections with these kids.”
The growth is continuing as Pediatric Pep Talk plans to add student-athletes and teams from Indiana University, the University of Arkansas, Western Kentucky University, and Northwestern University next year.
“We match each school with a partner hospital. It’s just so awesome because I wasn’t even looking for expansion; I was truly just going around polling to see if this was even a good idea. And people were so fascinated and interested that they needed this to expand so that they can use it for their children and their athletes as well.”
At Beacon Children’s Hospital itself, the nonprofit is currently only working with the hematology and oncology unit, but plans to expand to other units next year.
Manyak says with the four additional schools jumping on board, more than 2,300 student-athletes have committed to providing at least 2,400 videos by May of 2024.
“This will set us up for our goal to expand to 35 Power 5 conference schools, which means we should be able to deliver 21,000 smiles per year by May of 2025,” he said.
Looking beyond that, Manyak says the sky is the limit.
“After the college expansion, we will most definitely be going professional as well. We have already been talking with a few former ND athletes who are now professional athletes and have been gauging their interest. Everyone is so willing to help and is excited for us to expand into their spheres of influence as well.”