At 25, Sidney Kushner has discovered a way to improve the life of a child fighting cancer. And Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC (Children’s Hospital) has taken notice.
It’s not that the Upper St. Clair native and Brown University alumnus has found a cure or even a new medicinal treatment to help ease symptoms. Rather, he has found a way to give the children hope by providing them with inspirational role models and friendship through his nonprofit, CCChampions.
Here’s how it works: Soon after a child is diagnosed with cancer, the staff of Children’s Hospital will introduce that child to a staff member of CCChampions who asks the child: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
CCChampions then finds someone in that profession in the Pittsburgh area to become a friend and mentor to the child, someone “who can be there every step of the way,” Kushner said.
Mentors have included a bookstore owner, sports figures and even a rodeo cowgirl.
Kushner founded CCChampions in 2011 while he was still a student at Brown and launched a pilot program in New England in 2012. In 2013, he moved his headquarters to Pittsburgh.
After only two years in Pittsburgh, Kushner was contacted by the chief of service of pediatric hematology/oncology at Children’s Hospital, Linda McAllister, seeking to form a partnership.
“We decided to partner with CCChampions because we found that the organization provided (and still
provides) a unique service to our oncology patients that merits our support,” said Peter Shaw, clinical director of oncology at Children’s Hospital, in an email. “Whether it is pairing a new oncology patient with a retired baseball player, ballet dancer or a teacher, it gives the child and family something to look forward to in the hospital which is not a place children want to be. They also individualize their partnership to the needs of the child.”
Children’s Hospital is now providing annual funding to CCChampions, Kushner said, and McAllister has a seat on its board.
Mark Hamilton, a police officer with North Huntingdon Police, first heard about CCChampions — and a 9-year-old North Huntingdon Township resident Connor Vickers — while attending a police union meeting.
“After hearing about the organization, I knew I wanted to do something for Connor, so I volunteered to set up some events for him,” said Hamilton in an email.
Hamilton arranged for Connor to be sworn in as an honorary police officer by the chief of police and be issued a NHTPD uniform. Soon after that, Connor attended the annual NHTPD motor unit motorcycle training, where he watched the other officers complete their motorcycle continuation training. He also attended the NHTPD Emergency Response Team monthly training, observing the team tactically moving through a closed Norwin Middle School as if it were responding to an emergency situation with an active shooter.
“This summer, Connor will be attending a NHTPD K-9 training where he will see the K-9s do some tracking, drug detection and patrol bite work,” Hamilton added.
“Seeing Connor’s excitement while being around NHTPD and learning about police work is inspiring to me and other NHTPD officers,” Hamilton continued. “During these current times when the police are being watched under a microscope and at times seen in a negative light by the public, it is refreshing to hear that Connor still has aspirations to become a police officer and picked us as his ‘champion.’ Let there be no mistake about it, Connor is our ‘champion.’”
For Connor, CCChampions has been a “godsend,” according to his mother, Marci Ponterio.
After Connor was diagnosed, Ponterio, who was then a single mother, began her search for a role model for her son and for “something positive.” She heard about CCChampions from a friend who had seen a published blurb about the organization. Ponterio called CCChampions and heard back from Kushner that same day.
“Cancer is something you really can’t get away from,” she said. “And not having a father around was hard. I didn’t know where to turn.”
Typical cancer support groups, while useful, tend to be somewhat “depressing,” she said, but CCChampions is different.
“Connor wants to be a police officer when he grows up,” Ponterio said. Several NHTPD officers are now involved with Connor and have “lifted his mood.”
“These police officers come to Connor’s soccer games and text him all the time,” she said. “CCChampions has gone way beyond what you’d expect.”
In 2015, 75 percent of children in the area who were diagnosed with cancer signed up for a friend through CCChampions. The organization is currently serving about 70 children within a 200-mile radius of Pittsburgh, including Erie, East Huntingdon, West Virginia and parts of Ohio.
The age range of current participants is 4 to 22 years old, but there is “no age limit,” Kushner said.
CCChampions is making a difference to its participants, according to Shaw.
“I think there are several benefits to participating in CCChampions,” Shaw said. “First, the child has a new friend to visit them in the hospital and take their mind off of their disease and treatment. The full-time staff, along with the ‘champion,’ also provides another line of support for families and children that may not already have that in place.
“The last thing is that it can provide a break for the parents to leave the child playing a game or doing a craft with a CCChampions staff or the ‘champion,’” Shaw added. “Their involvement with kids and families facing cancer I only see as a positive.”
Kushner, who was an applied math major at Brown, was inspired by his family to try to help others, he said.
“My grandmother [Alice Kushner] was a social worker for nursing home oncology patients,” he said. “Everyone in my family has taught me the importance of making sure that no one is alone.”
Kushner is planning on expanding his nonprofit to a second chapter in a “neighboring city” to Pittsburgh in the next 12 to 18 months, he said, with the participation of Children’s Hospital.
“There are 15,000 kids newly diagnosed with cancer every year in the U.S.,” Kushner said. “And Children’s Hospital is always looking for innovative ways to achieve positive outcomes.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.