Healing smiles: Notre Dame student-athlete starts nonprofit to help kids battling cancer

Three years ago, 10-year-old Ian McMillen of Granger, Indiana, was battling leukemia at Beacon Children’s Hospital. Today at age 13, he is officially cancer-free. 

While his diagnosis and years of treatment brought pain and fear into the lives of Ian and his family members, it also revealed some of the best qualities of the human spirit, created enduring and otherwise unlikely friendships, and led to the creation of a nonprofit business designed to help kids like him.

Through a University of Notre Dame program that sends student-athletes to visit with hospital patients, Ian was introduced to senior Maxim Manyak, a player on the Notre Dame men’s lacrosse team. The introduction would change both of their lives.

A finance and pre-professional health dual major from Sherman Oaks, California, Manyak plans to go to medical school and become an orthopedic surgeon. As a direct result of meeting Ian, he also is the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Pediatric Pep Talk, “where a smile a day keeps the doctor away.”

The app-based platform virtually connects children’s hospitals, their critically ill patients (mostly children fighting cancer) and their families with athletes across the country, allowing the young patients to “join” a team. The players send the young patients encouraging video messages to bring them joy and make them smile.

Max Manyak Crop
Max Manyak

“Ian is the inspiration behind Pediatric Pep Talk,” Manyak said. “Initially, we had made plans to go to the zoo, for him to come to my practices, cheer us on at our games — and more importantly, I promised him a whole new team to stand by his side when he needed it most.”

COVID-19 ruined that plan.

Ian was confined to his room so that his health was not put at risk, and Manyak was sent home from Notre Dame, along with the rest of the student body. As the in-person visits came to an end, Manyak vowed it would not end the friendship.

“I had made Ian a promise, and I would move mountains to keep it,” Manyak said. “When we were able to resume practices, my teammates and I sent him a quick video and he loved it. We made him our teammate.”

When Ian was facing a daunting spinal tap and chemotherapy session, his father, Kevin McMillen, reached out to Manyak hoping the team could boost his spirits again. His son needed a reason to smile.

“I put together an encouraging and uplifting video from all 50 guys on my team,” Manyak said. “I added some highlights from our most recent games and threw in some music so that Ian’s new teammates could all be there with him on the morning of his surgery.”

“It was so impactful and we are so grateful,” McMillen said, “because Ian literally couldn’t do anything else. The guys gave him something to look forward to and be involved with when he needed it most.”

The following day, Ian’s nurse called Manyak, moved to tears by what he and the team had done for Ian. She wanted to know if there was any way they could help other children too. 

“That was the moment the seed was planted and I knew the answer was yes — there was much more we could do,” Manyak said.

He got to work and recruited athletes from every Notre Dame varsity team.

Pediatric Pep Talk now features monthly video interactions between more than 800 athletes from all 26 Notre Dame varsity teams and 16 patients from Beacon Children’s Hospital, and an expansion beyond South Bend is underway.

Student-athletes and teams from the University of Arkansas and Western Kentucky, Northwestern and Indiana Universities, along with three new hospitals, plan to join when the infrastructure is expanded to accommodate increased demand. Manyak is working on that now, along with marketing and branding efforts.

“We want to ensure we have a simple, easy and scalable platform whose expansion would only be limited by internet connectivity,” Manyak said. “We don’t want to expand too much before we are ready.

“The reality is that we now work with four other universities, four hospitals, 72 teams and more than 2,300 athletes committed to providing at least 2,400 video smiles by May of 2024,” Manyak said. “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.”

Notre Dame’s IDEA Center has served as a main resource in all aspects of business development as Manyak works to balance entrepreneurship with his heavy academic course load and team commitments. 

“Max embodies the three qualities we’re looking for in our student founders:  hungry, humble, and helpful," said John Henry, the IDEA Center's director of student startups. "He was a great participant in last summer’s Race to Revenue program, working shoulder to shoulder with the rest of our founders, connecting with alumni, and inspiring everyone with his ambition and vision of being a force for good.”

Kaitlin Wowak, Notre Dame’s Robert and Sara Lumpkins Associate Professor of Business Analytics, taught Manyak’s Introduction to Process Analytics course. She also helped with business connections. 

“Starting a successful nonprofit isn’t easy, especially on top of being a Division I athlete and the rigorous academics at Notre Dame,” Wowak said. “Max is going to change the world one kid at a time.”

Kevin Corrigan, the Baumer Family Head Men’s Lacrosse Coach, is in his 34th season at Notre Dame and has built the Irish into one of the premier men’s lacrosse programs in the country. He says Manyak, who has been sidelined by injury the majority of his time at Notre Dame, has never let it get him down and embodies the values he expects from his players.

“Max is an unbelievable young man,” Corrigan said, “not just because of his remarkable academic profile or because of his ability to so successfully navigate life as a student-athlete, but because of his relentlessly positive attitude and his ability to impact everyone he comes into contact with. Max is a servant leader and a true force for good.” 

Manyak credits Corrigan, his teammates and his parents.

“Helping those in need is a driving principle instilled in me by my parents and my coaches throughout my life,” Manyak said. “Coach Corrigan asked me how I was going to contribute to our pursuit of a championship. Having never worn a jersey or played in a full practice, I was left pondering my purpose. I realized I was given this opportunity to represent a championship team. And without the consistent support and encouragement from Coach Corrigan and my whole team, this venture would have never materialized.”

Ian McMillan surrounded by the Notre Dame lacrosse team
Ian McMillen surrounded by the Notre Dame lacrosse team

Ian’s treatments ended in September, and in October, the lacrosse team held a celebration for him at the lacrosse field. He toured the locker room, received a stick and helmet, played games with the entire team and coaches and rode around campus in a Notre Dame fire truck.

Looking ahead, Manyak admits his goals and dreams for the company are not necessarily in alignment.

“In a perfect world, I dream that Pediatric Pep Talk would never be needed in the first place and that this would be a failed venture,” he said. “I dream that all kids would be healthy and have smiles on their faces. Unfortunately, we are far from that being a reality so my ultimate goal for this nonprofit is for it to be international.”

McMillen said that when Ian beat cancer, he worried he may lose his new teammates, but Manyak said no way.

They finally got to visit the zoo together. Ian and his family have been cheering for the lacrosse team in person. And Manyak says Ian will always hold a special place in his heart.

“I didn’t do anything special,” Manyak said. “I was just trying to make one little boy’s life easier. We were all so fortunate to be able to celebrate with Ian before he rang the bell Oct. 21 and was officially declared cancer-free.”

Originally published by Shannon Roddel at news.nd.edu on November 30, 2022.