Local teen’s fighting spirit lives on through Wheatley soccer field

Michael Laliberte (Photo courtesy Erin Medeiros)

After tragically losing their son at the age of 16, a Wheatley family will get to see his legacy live on at one of his favourite places.

On Monday night, council approved the renaming of The Wheatley Soccer Field to The Michael Laliberte Memorial Soccer Field.

Laliberte passed away last year after a three-year-long battle with cancer.

According to his mother, Erin Medeiros, one of Laliberte’s former teachers reached out to the family in September and informed them that some of the Wheatley community members wanted to submit an application to rename the field after Michael.

The Municipality of Chatham-Kent created a survey to get public feedback on the proposed name change, with 252 of the 260 respondents indicating they were in support of the idea.

Medeiros said there are no words to describe what the renaming means to her and her family.

“Losing Michael was the hardest thing we’ve ever had to go through,” she said. “So to know the community is also feeling those things just to know that Michael touched so many people, it was completely overwhelming. When you’re dealing with grief and grief seems so isolating and lonely and then to know that you’re not the only one who’s grieving, the whole town is feeling the loss of your son who made a difference.”

According to Medeiros, Michael grew up near The Wheatley Soccer Field and began playing the sport as a young child, spending as many days on the field as he could. As he got older, his soccer talents continued to improve and he was soon playing on travel teams as well as coaching and reffing the sport.

His battle with cancer started while he was in Grade 8 when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of muscle cancer.

Medeiros said her son had no obvious symptoms at first, besides a small lump that was originally believed to be a hernia. It wasn’t until he started suffering pain that doctors sent him for a scan and the cancer was discovered.

From there, Michael went through dozens of rounds of radiation and several years of chemotherapy. Medeiros said he kept a positive attitude throughout the whole process and even maintained Honour Roll at school. As a member of the Leamington District Secondary School Lions, the Wheatley Warriors and Wheatley Area Minor Soccer, The Wheatley Soccer Field also continued to be one of his favourite places to be throughout his battle.

“He would go to school, I’d pick him up on Wednesday afternoon and he’d drive to Windsor to get chemo. Then we’d go back on Friday to get chemo. He was working at Thiessen Apple Orchard on the weekends. During this, he was playing soccer when he could, he was still coaching and reffing,” she explained. “He really kept his journey private while he was receiving chemotherapy, he just wanted to be a normal regular kid. On the soccer field, he could be that.”

By May of 2019, the family was told that Michael was cancer-free. But because of how aggressive the type of cancer he had was, he continued with chemotherapy for several more months.

Less than a year later, the family received news of a devastating setback.

“In January of 2020, he did his last dose of chemo, he rang the gong, only to find out nine days later that his cancer had returned,” Medeiros explained.

After being given a terminal diagnosis, Michael chose to spend his remaining few months at his home in Wheatley surrounded by his family.

After a three-year-long fight, he lost his battle on July 14, 2020.

Michael Laliberte (Photo courtesy Erin Medeiros)

“He was absolutely amazing,” said Medeiros. “Even as a grown-up it’s hard to imagine being told you have cancer never mind being told you have cancer you’re going to die from… it was an incredibly difficult journey.”

As the family continues to cope with the loss, they have also begun to dedicate their time to raising awareness and money for childhood cancer.

Michael’s parents have created the ‘Fight Like Mike’ initiative with Medeiros recently launching an Instagram account dedicated to his journey.

They’ve also grown close with the Fight Like Mason Foundation, a non-profit named after a young boy from Belle River who was diagnosed with the same cancer as Michael and passed away at age four.

Since the family launched the ‘Fight Like Mike’ initiative, they have since raised over $500 through t-shirt sales and are hoping to organize more fundraising events in the future, pending COVID-19 restrictions.

“People don’t know a lot about childhood cancer and we receive the least amount of funding from the government,” said Medeiros. “People don’t want to think about it, it’s terrifying. Your children are everything and you don’t want to think about cancer affecting them. I think most people think that you get cancer because you did something to your body like you didn’t eat well, you’ve been working in chemicals or you’re older. But young, healthy people get cancer.”

The family is also vowing to keep the story of Michael’s positive and resilient spirit alive.

Medeiros said she knows that he would be very honoured about the fact that he now has a soccer field named after him and she hopes everyone who steps on the field will be able to find the same strength in life that he did.

“I really hope everyone comes to the soccer field in Wheatley, that will now wonderfully be named The Michael Laliberte Memorial Soccer Field, that they remember that Michael was brave, had courage and found solace at the soccer field,” she said. “He took refuge playing soccer when he was suffering. Michael was so brave and an inspiration. He would want everyone to be able to play soccer, to go there and think about what joy that brought him.”