When Laneah Whiddon joined the Towson University women's gymnastics team as an honorary member this past winter, it was the first time she got to be a part of a sports team.
As an infant, Whiddon, 11, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a group of genetic, degenerative diseases primarily affecting voluntary muscles. She is stricken to a wheelchair and, as a result, has never been able to participate in or play sports.
But thanks to the Team Up For 1 Foundation, Whiddon had the chance to attend Towson practices and meets, interact with the coaches and gymnasts and even help out with tasks around the gym. Launched a little less than two years ago, TU41 places children ages 5 to 18 battling chronic and life-threatening illnesses with college athletic programs.
Whiddon grew very close with Tigers gymnast Bridget Steffen, who, along with McDaniel volleyball player Kloe Martin, was honored with the TU41 Sports Leadership Award as part of PressBox's 10th anniversary bash May 11. The award, presented to Steffen and Martin in a special ceremony at the Center Club downtown, is given to individuals exhibiting team leadership skills and a desire to make a difference in their community.
"I really didn't know what to expect when my coach [Vicki Chliszczyk] called me and told me I had won this award," said Steffen, who was nominated by Chliszczyk. "I was thinking, 'Oh, an award, what did I do?' But when she explained it to me and Laneah's mom what the award was about, it really touched my heart, because I really didn't even expect to be noticed for giving back to the community."
Martin was recognized for her work this year as McDaniel's student-athlete advisory council and her participation with Special Olympics. A Littleton, Colo., native, Martin recently graduated with a psychology degree and returned to her home state, where she will work as a third-grade teacher beginning in the fall.
While she garnered All-Centennial Conference honors and the conference tournament's Most Valuable Player award this past season, she said being selected by her coach, Jessica Wolverton, for the TU41 award was the most rewarding.
"I have won other awards like this in our conference (Centennial), but you could tell that my coach thought this was a bigger deal," Martin said. "I was super excited and honored that she thought of me as a player who was deserving enough to be nominated for an award like this and take part in such a great cause."
It is a cause that has hit home for Whiddon's mother, Dana, who has been an active member of the foundation for the last several months. A TU41 board member, Dana Whiddon came across TU41's website, teamupfor1.org, filled out an application for her daughter and was then promptly matched with the Towson gymnastics squad.
Dana Whiddon said she had her doubts when she joined TU41, but the positive experience her daughter has had with Towson's gymnasts, especially Steffen, erased any initial fears.
"I did not have very high hopes for this program, because I thought it was going to be similar to some of the other things my daughter has been to," Dana Whiddon said. "She can't play sports, so I wasn't sure if it was going to be for us.
"But then, when we got involved with it, just the friendships that have developed … it's meant everything. [The Towson gymnastics team] calls my daughter, treats her like a friend, interacts with her, texts her -- it's just amazing what they have done for her."
Steffen, a rising senior majoring in family and human service, said Laneah Whiddon has served as just as big of an inspiration to her. For instance, Laneah Whiddon offered her some encouragement a few weeks ago when the two spent the day together at the National Aquarium in Baltimore with several of Steffen's teammates.
"When we were there, we went to go touch these fish, and she said, 'Oh, this is so fun,'" Steffen said. "I said, 'Oh, this is scary -- I don't want to touch these fish.' But she said, 'Don't be scared, just do it,' so she was teaching [me] more than I was teaching her.'"
Now that Steffen is back in her native Virginia for the summer, she plans to keep in contact with Laneah Whiddon at least once every two weeks through phone calls, text messages and social media. Steffen also hopes to see Laneah Whiddon as often as possible when she returns to Towson in mid-August for her senior year.
"I would love to keep continuing to hang around, because she is just so great to be around and is full of life," Steffen said. "I just can't wait to be around her."
Charlie Levine, executive director of TU41, said the award ceremony and gala exceeded his expectations, raising a little less than $50,000. Looking ahead, his hope is to continue putting on similar events in the future, and he already has a potential project in the works for the fall.
"To me, I think this award and everything involved with it gave us great pride on what it is that we do," Levine said. "In my honest opinion, I think it helps us maintain a fresh perspective, especially with these college athletes and young people involved in getting these awards."
Issue 222: June 2016
Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Team Up For 1 was limited to the state of Maryland. PressBox regrets the error.