Tara Erpelding knew how it felt to have her heart so full that it could burst at any moment.
Since her 8-year-old daughter Charly was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in May, the love and support she and husband Andy have received during their darkest days has never stopped.
It came when moms from Charly’s elementary school brought dinner several nights a week. It was when Tara’s parents Dee Dee and Jerry Awbrey made sure the Erpeldings always returned from the hospital to a stocked refrigerator and a clean house. It was when Andy’s sister Heidi let the dogs out several times a day and had Charly’s younger brother Will over to spend the night when Charly was in treatment. It was when friends in their hometown of Bettendorf, Iowa, provided whatever help was needed.
But support also came from a less likely source: Andy’s extended Division II family. Not only did the family of the former Northwest Missouri State all-American gain emotional backing from student-athletes at his alma mater, it also was encouraged by student-athletes and fans at Central Missouri, one of Northwest’s biggest rivals.
In fact, Charly has been connected to Division II since before she was born.
Andy is a former offensive lineman and two-time national champion at Northwest Missouri State. In the late 1990s, he was recruited by Northwest’s offensive coordinator Jim Svoboda, now the head coach at Central Missouri.
Andy and Jim remained close friends after their days at Northwest. With no children of their own, Jim and his wife Susie were especially honored eight years ago when they were named Charly’s godparents.
Through Charly’s fight with cancer, Svoboda has been a central line of support for the Erpeldings. Having defeated appendix cancer in 2009, he inspires hope for a family never willing to give in to the disease.
“Your initial reaction is shock and disbelief any time you get news like this that involves an eight-year-old child,” Svoboda said. “What you’re trying to do when you hear that news is educate yourself as much as possible with what it is you’re dealing with. You try to find out who really deals with this type of cancer and find the best people in the country that are out there to treat her.”
When Northwest and Central Missouri officials heard of Charly’s condition, their immediate reaction was to get behind this Division II family in its time of need.
“We wanted to do something together,” said Northwest Athletics Director Wren Baker. “I think it says something about the Life in the Balance mentality DII has put forward.”
The decision was to highlight Division II’s affiliation with Make-A-Wish (Division II student-athletes have raised almost $2.5 million for Make-A-Wish over nine years). The Erpeldings had been informed earlier in the summer that Charly was a candidate to receive a Wish.
“We talk to our kids a lot about community engagement,” Baker said. “When you can do something like this and help somebody and an organization like Make-A-Wish, that’s a win for everybody.”
During the first two weeks of the college football season, Northwest and Central Missouri sold yellow “Bearcats and Mules for Charly” bracelets and raised a combined $2,886.25 in Charly’s name for Make-A-Wish. Both institutions’ Student-Athlete Advisory Committees organized bracelet sales at Northwest for their season opener and at Central Missouri on the second college football Saturday of the year.
“We are so dependent on student leadership to make an institution what it is,” Central Missouri President Chuck Ambrose said. “I’m really proud of Division II SAAC because if you think about a nine-year relationship with Make-A-Wish and a growing relationship each year, this sets a role model for the whole NCAA.”
The student-athletes at both campuses didn’t require much convincing to get the communities of Maryville (Northwest) and Warrensburg (Central) to rally behind a child few people at either school had ever met.
“We’re just a community that loves to give back,” said Jordan Gadbois, a softball student-athlete and SAAC representative at Northwest. “When it comes to something like this, it’s not about a rivalry anymore. It’s about a little girl, her family and what they’re going through. We want them to know that they’re not going through it alone.”
On Aug. 29, Charly underwent major surgery to remove the tumor. Even though she and her family were unable to attend the Northwest-Central Missouri football game Sept. 8, the tribute to Charly and other seriously ill children was at the forefront.
Before kickoff, a check from Division II for $468,569.35 raised during the 2011-12 academic year was presented to Make-A-Wish, highlighting another year of student-athletes support of the organization.
Shortly thereafter, the public address announcer’s voice boomed over the stadium’s loudspeaker, dedicating the contest between two longstanding rivals to Charly.
“It helps to put things in perspective,” Svoboda said. “It’s a rallying point for both schools and a tremendous test of wills on the football field, but in reality there are things far more important things out there than football.”
That includes the welfare of seriously ill children and their families − and the support they require in the most difficult of times.
Charly is recovering well from her surgery and doing her best to maintain the life of a normal eight-year-old. On the days she feels well, she can be found outside playing with her cousins. Not wanting to miss a beat, she’s been keeping up with her schoolwork from home. She recently aced a spelling test, which was just the encouragement she needed heading into another round of chemotherapy and radiation.
The pathology test the family received post surgery was encouraging, although they are well aware of the many treatment challenges that lie ahead.
It is, without doubt, a difficult road – but one that has been made more navigable because of the support of families, extended and otherwise.
“Everyone that we have in our lives have pitched in and done more than we can imagine,” said Andy Erpelding. “We’re by no means pulling off a miracle by ourselves, trying to keep our lives together during this time. It truly takes a village to pull off the amount of support we’ve received for Charly and we’re just a small part of that.”