A teenager’s cousin suffered from cancer, so he turned her struggle into an impressive call to action

California native Dylan Mapston has always had a passion for soccer.

Growing up, the 16-year-old, who moved to Phoenix about 10 years ago, was — and still is — a huge of the MLS team the Portland Timbers. He’d play soccer recreationally, occasionally as a left fullback but later on as a goalkeeper. Because of his position, he would look up to professional athletes who played the same role: Timbers’ Jeff Attinella, Phoenix Rising’s Zac Lubin, Manchester United’s David de Gea and Memphis 901 FC’s Tim Howard, to name a few.

“I play on the field,” he told In The Know. “But like keeper? That’s where I want to be when I go onto college and maybe become pro.”

What started off as a hobby, however, would soon manifest itself in Mapston’s other passion — namely, giving back to his family and the community.

Several years ago, Mapston, who is currently a sophomore at Odyssey Institute, learned that both of his aunts on his maternal and paternal sides of the family were diagnosed with breast cancer. To honor them, he’d wear a pink jersey at his games.

But when the teenager learned that his then-2-year-old cousin in Portland, Ore., was similarly diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on her spine in 2016, he decided to step up his efforts. His cousin’s family had sent him a video of her going through a toy bin at her hospital, and, at that moment, he knew what to do.

Credit: Dylan Mapston

“It kind of made me feel happy for her because every kid … doesn’t have the chance to go to a toy bin or even have a chance of their parents collecting toys for them because all of their money is spent having food on the table and making sure that the kid is in the hospital getting what they need to be done,” he said.

Mapston founded Keepers Care for Kids, which, according to its Facebook page, “was created one simple premise — to provide comfort to children and families as they battle cancers.” Through this initiative, the teenager has collected thousands of toys — Mapston estimated he’s so far gathered nearly 3,000 toys — for hospitals across the country. Some of those hospitals include Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, the Phoenix Children’s Hospital and the Diamond Children’s Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz. He’s also donated toys to foster children.

“I’ve done a lot of stuff because every kid goes through something different,” he explained. “And if I just focus on people in hospitals, that’s not really helping everyone.”

Still, one memory that particularly sticks out to the 16-year-old is a time he spent with a cancer patient at Diamond Children’s Medical Center, he said. The patient, who was similar in age, had cancer in knee and couldn’t help but look at a science set that was sitting on a hospital cart. Mapston said he asked the patient whether the latter wanted the set and the two eventually bonded.

“He was a really genuine kid,” Mapston recalled. “But with what happened [with his cancer], he was just kind of sitting at the hospital making sure that he was alive.”

Credit: Dylan Mapston

Last winter, the sophomore even got his school involved in a toy drive for the Phoenix Children’s Hospital. He said he worked with the student council teacher and put out a call during an assembly.

“It was perfect planning because it was right before soccer season started,” he said. “So I kind of asked her, ‘Hey, can we do this?’ And she [was] full on board.”

Despite his work through Keepers Care for Kids, Mapston has found other ways to help his community. In September (and for the second consecutive year), he launched Clean Sheets Against Cancer, which supports the Children’s Cancer Research Fund. The fundraiser’s name refers to a goalkeeper’s “clean sheet” — or a game in which the goalie prevents the opponent from scoring. This year, Mapston’s donors has included Lubin, whom the teenager met at a Phoenix Rising game.

“[Lubin’s] helped me a lot,” Mapston said. “A lot of people that are pros — USL [League] One, USL [League] Two — they helped me a lot to bring [back awareness of] cancer because everyone’s [been] worried about COVID or making sure they have toilet paper [and other] necessities.”

Between school, soccer and community work, the teenager admitted that he has a lot on his plate (he has several toy drives lined up in November and next year). Still, Mapston said he takes joy in helping others through their challenges.

“[The message I want others to take away] is that even if people are in hard times, still help them to make them feel better about themselves,” he said. “Then they have a chance of getting their lives back on track.”

If you enjoyed this story, you might want to read about this cancer-stricken woman who received an “amazing” gift from her friends and strangers.

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