Fighting to improve the lives of sick children
Maxim Manyak committed to play lacrosse at Notre Dame when he was a high school sophomore in Los Angeles. The frosty South Bend winters, combined with a family allegiance to USC, gave him some reservations, but the prospect of playing for the Fighting Irish tipped the scales. He showed up to South Bend for his first year bursting with enthusiasm, but in his first practice with the team, he tore his ACL. Surgery and rehab would be a full-year endeavor, effectively halting his first season with the Irish before it even began. As winter descended, he fell into despair.
Across town, a 10-year-old boy named Ian McMillen also received an even more devastating medical diagnosis: leukemia. Between doctors appointments and treatment, Ian was disheartened.
In near synchronicity, Ian and Manyak discovered Fighting Irish Fight for Life, a program between Notre Dame’s Office for Student Welfare and Development, now called the GLD Center, and Beacon Children’s Hospital, which pairs athletic teams with chronically ill kids. The teams host Christmas parties, invite the children to campus for sporting events, and serve as an extended support system. Manyak volunteered to spearhead the lacrosse team’s involvement, and got the team paired with Ian.
As Manyak recalls, “When we were paired with him, I had nothing to do because I wasn’t playing, and I was begging for something to do to get involved with my team. So I was like, ‘Great, he needs a team, I need a team. So let’s work together. We’ll make this work.’”
Manyak and Ian hit it off immediately. Manyak funneled his energy and enthusiasm into making plans with Ian: zoo visits, sporting events, movie nights. Then COVID hit.
Ian’s treatments rendered him immunocompromised, so as the global lockdowns went into effect, his father recalled they had to truly shutter the doors. “It really hit home for us too because we didn’t go out,” says Kevin McMillen. “It really had an impact on Ian.”
Manyak, like other students, was sent home when campus closed. He recalls the relief of returning to southern California and letting his family care for him as he recovered from ACL surgery. But when he reached out to Ian, he heard the toll the lockdown was having on Ian’s spirits and jumped into action. Inspired by Snapchat’s popular micro-videos, he sent Ian a quick pump-up video.
Ian’s response was so positive, he sent another. And another. And asked the other guys on the team to do the same. When they returned to campus, the videos continued every day.
“It’s not how many kids we impact, how many families we help—it’s how many smiles we can put on their faces.” —Max Manyak
“It was really easy, super simple,” Manyak says. “It was just the easiest way for me to teleport Ian out of his room and into the locker room here with us. So it’s really a truly special experience to bring Ian to the locker room, the field, to practice, our games. He’s essentially been traveling with the team through these videos, and Ian absolutely loved them.”
Ian started sending a weekly response video, which the team would watch at team breakfast every Saturday. The routine continued until Ian’s father had a request: Ian had a spinal tap scheduled and wondered if something special could be made to make the process a little easier?
Manyak rolled up his sleeves and compiled clips from his teammates with play tape and set it to music. He sent the email and went to class.
He came out to a list of missed calls. The hospital. Notre Dame’s Athletics Department. His stomach sank. But it wasn’t Ian. It was Ian’s nurse. She was crying. The video had touched her and the rest of the care team profoundly. She was amazed. And she wanted more for her other patients.
“I realized that it’s not just helping Ian, it’s helping everyone around him. So that just gives him a much better quality of care. His parents aren’t as worried; they’re not as stressed. It gives them two minutes off. His siblings are more excited. His care staff, the hospital nurses, doctors—he’s easier to deal with when he’s smiling. And for them, not all the burden’s on them or on his parents. We’re sharing the wealth a little bit. And so I just realized that that was super impactful,” Manyak says.
But he was daunted by the idea of replicating this. Manyak was a double major in finance and pre-professional health who was preparing for medical school. He had the demands of being a student-athlete, plus his rehabilitation. Still, he knew he had to find a way to scale what he was doing. Pediatric Pep Talk was born.
“Our mantra at Pediatric Pep Talk is that a smile a day keeps the doctor away. That started because when we first sent that first video to Ian, we were told that ‘Max, you put a smile on Ian’s face.’ So now everything we do at Pediatric Pep Talk is in terms of smiles,” Manyak explains. “It’s not how many kids we impact, how many families we help—it’s how many smiles we can put on their faces. So everything we look at and whenever we expand to new hospitals, new schools, whatever it is, we’re just trying to give the gift of more smiles because we truly do believe that a smile a day keeps the doctor away.”
Thanks to help from Notre Dame’s IDEA Center, Pediatric Pep Talk is now a nonprofit, app-based platform that can connect critically ill children with college athletes from across the country. All 26 varsity teams and more than 800 athletes from Notre Dame are involved, and the app has since spread to schools including Northwestern, Hofstra, USC, Ohio State, and Arkansas.
“As student-athletes, we’re so busy that it becomes hard to really interact in person and have all these in-person events. But these super easy, incredibly quick videos are a wonderful way to help out these kids and help to deliver smiles across the country,” Manyak says.
With help from his team of other student-athletes, including lacrosse players Nick Harris and Kayleigh Wolff, rower Bella Allen, and fencer Daria Kudriavtseva, Pediatric Pep Talk served five kids in year one, then 16 in year two. They expect to have nearly 100 on their roster for year three.
With a nonprofit and a national championship under his belt, Manyak decided to return to Notre Dame for a fifth year, using his extra year of athletic eligibility to work toward a master’s degree. He’ll also push Pediatric Pep Talk to deliver 21,000 smiles by May 2025.
Reflecting back, Manyak is wowed by how such a simple idea made such an impact and will now help even more kids like Ian.
“I think the impact this has had on Ian is that it really just helped him not be alone. Through his whole fight in battle with cancer, that was something that was super important and it was just a very bright, happy part of his day every day. It was just incredible for him to know that there are a bunch of random college dudes that absolutely had his back. It was a whole new family for him, a whole new brotherhood. We were with him every morning of every big surgery that he had,” he says.
Ian echoes that assessment: “It really impacted my life and put my life in a different point of view. These people actually cared about me and wanted to help me,” he says. “They took time out of the things they need to do just to make a video for me, which I think is totally awesome.”
Ian and Manyak were finally able to meet in-person in an emotional event in September 2021.
“It actually brought a tear to my eye,” Manyak recalls. “Seeing him look up to us, even though he had never met us, but virtually we had helped him through so much was just so incredible. Just how the family reacted and how grateful and thankful they were for us and what we did, even though it just took us a few seconds every day.”
As of last October, Ian is cancer free. His treatments are now over, and he’s looking forward to watching Manyak help other kids.
“I just think it’s amazing that he’s trying to do this to help other kids, because it’s really going to help them out like he helped me, and that’s really exciting,” Ian says.
For more information about Pediatric Pep Talk, visit: pediatricpeptalk.org