As the Harvard women’s basketball team walked off the court Tuesday night, they knew that the rest of the year would be different. With the season over, weekends would no longer be dominated by traveling and back-to-back competitions, and practices would not consume every free moment of time. For assistant coach Kelly Finley, the end of the women’s season means something entirely different—it allows her to spend a lot more time with a little girl named Avigail.
Avigail Eshet is a spirited eight-year-old that Finley helps care for in her spare time. However, this is not your average babysitting job—Avigail was born with severe familial dysautonomia and requires constant supervision to prevent a medical crisis.
Familial dysautonomia is a rare recessive genetic disorder that results from improper development of the autonomic nervous system. This means that Avigail’s body cannot perform many involuntary nervous responses—such as swallowing, blinking, or turning off adrenaline production if she gets upset—and she does not feel visceral pain. Any time Avigail is distressed, the failure of her nervous system to properly regulate hormones, like adrenaline, puts her at risk for going into a life-threatening dysautonomic crisis.
“Ninety percent of her life we try to prevent her from getting there [to a crisis],” said Avigail’s mother Sigal Yawetz. “She needs someone looking at her 24/7.”
That’s where Kelly Finley comes in.
Finley moved to Boston in 2008 after graduating from Colorado State University with a degree in human development and family studies. But she was also unsure of her career plans. Leaving her days of college basketball stardom behind, Finley decided to volunteer as an assistant coach for the Crimson women’s 2008-2009 season.
“I knew that [Kathy Delaney-Smith] was a very skilled coach and that her kids were very happy,” said Finley, who was recruited by Delaney-Smith out of high school. “I came out here and took the job but had no way to make money.”
At that point, Dan Eshet and Yawetz, Avigail’s parents, entered Kelly’s life. The couple was looking for another person to help look after Avigail, and when they advertised, Finley answered.
While many other babysitters had been intimidated by Avigail’s condition, Finley was prepared for the job. Finley has a sister with a similar condition, although less medically disabled, and she has always been passionate about helping others, especially special-needs children.
“For us, it’s [finding] someone who can be another pair of eyes and be like a big sister,” Yawetz said. “With Kelly it really clicked—she turned into Avigail’s most favorite person in the world. When she sees her, she has a big smile.”
But Avigail isn’t the only person who has benefited from this connection. Finley, who moved to Boston without knowing a single person, was able to find a home away from home in the Eshet-Yawetz household.
More importantly, this second job has allowed Finley to find balance with her demanding coaching position.
“Without that balance, [coaching is] a profession that can consume you to no end. You get so wrapped up in that that you forget the bigger picture in life,” Finley said. “[Working with Avigail], it’s been more beneficial and easier for me than anything else.”
Avigail has made a significant impact in Finley’s life as the coach spends much of her spare time with the Eshet-Yawetz family. Even in the thick of Harvard’s time-intensive basketball season, Finley still eats dinner at Avigail’s home at least once a week.
Finley’s work with Avigail has also influenced her team. The girls have all heard stories of Finley’s job, and Yawetz has brought her other son, one-year-old Yoni, to watch the Crimson play.
“It gives the girls good perspective,” said Finley of her work with Avigail. “A lot of them have so much, and to see that sometimes you need to go outside yourself isn’t a bad thing.”
Finley has made a huge impact in the lives of those around her. Her dedication to Avigail has bonded her with the Eshet-Yawetz family and has allowed her to impart a fresh perspective to her team.
“Basketball is a game,” Finley said. “The point of the game is to help the girls on the team be the best people they can be.”
If the Harvard women follow Finley’s example, they will be able to find a similarly balanced life on and off the court.
—Staff writer Alexandra J. Mihalek can be reached at email@example.com.