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July 4, 2013

New program has one wish: Smiles

Carly Mercer had been waiting for the big idea.

With a burden on her heart to serve the Purdue community, Mercer had gotten an opportunity to help some as a swimmer for the Boilermakers.

But she wanted to do more.

Finally, while watching an ESPN "30 on 30" special during a family diversity class in April, Mercer had it.

She was inspired by then-Connecticut basketball player Elena Delle Donne's willingness to leave the best women's program in the country to go home and be closer to her physically disabled sister. Mercer wondered why Purdue didn't have a program that served special needs.

That's when Boiler-Maker-Wish was born.

Mercer quickly brought in friends and other athletes she'd gotten to know through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes - swimming teammate Julia Comodeca, football player Charles Torwudzo, women's basketball player Courtney Moses and softball player Lindsey Rains - to get started.

The mission is powerful in its simplicity.

"Just put a smile on a child's face living with a disability," said Mercer, a senior.

That goal will be fulfilled by granting wishes, similar to the national "Make-A-Wish" foundation. Purdue's program is taking applications for children K-12 with moderate to severe physical disabilities or life-threatening disabilities.

The program will try to grant any wish within the Purdue athletic spectrum.

That could cover attending a basketball practice and meeting the athletes afterward or touring athletic facilities and locker rooms or standing on the side to cheer on the swimmers during a meet or getting prime seats for a football game and autographs afterward.

"We just want to give back to the community. We have this great platform through athletics," said Comodeca, a senior swimmer. "It's a great chance to help people out and give an opportunity of a lifetime."

Comodeca, Mercer and Torwudzo especially have a strong passion for helping children: They all know someone affected by either a disability or life-threatening illness.

Torwudzo attended a "kid's prom" for a boy who has cancer in his hometown of Brownsburg.

Mercer coached a swimmer in her neighborhood who has a disability.

Comodeca volunteered with special needs kids while she was in high school.

"It's amazing how little things can bring such joy to these kids," Comodeca said. "It's just a reminder that you have to enjoy every day, just the little things. It's an amazing thing that we have an opportunity that we could really put a smile on someone's face through the things we do here every day."

It was Torwudzo's interaction with that boy and his friends - everyone at the prom had some kind of cancer - that had him immediately jump on board when Mercer approached him about Boiler-Maker-Wish.

"I was like, 'That is completely genius. I'm all in,' " he said. "It's crazy how far that this can go and has a lot of potential to grow.

"We're starting out local, obviously the community provides so much for the university, but eventually, we intend on branching out as large as the whole state. If a child really wants to see a game or really wants to see a practice from Fort Wayne or all the way down in Bloomington, the idea is to grow and that's what we're trying to do."

That's the "big" part of Mercer's idea.

And she doesn't care how long it takes.

"When I was thinking of this program, I was thinking, 'I want it to be huge. I want Purdue to be a resounding name in the state of Indiana.' Right now, (the program is) small, but eventually, I want it to be big enough that everyone in Indiana is trying to apply and we're having to decide," Mercer said. "I think that would be awesome. It's not only a great way to reach out to our community but to get Purdue's name out there.

"It may take a year or so but fine. That's OK."

For now, Mercer and other athletes are hitting local schools weekly to spread news about the program.

Three families already have applied, and part of the first wish will be delivered soon. One child requested to meet recently graduated men's basketball player D.J. Byrd and attend a Big Ten men's basketball game. The meeting with Byrd is scheduled for mid-July.

And there's one goal for that meeting.


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