Sidney Kushner knows a thing or two about providence.
The Upper St. Clair native, who is now a senior at Brown University, recalls being on an airplane following his freshman year, telling his father, Don, about his idea to help kids coping with cancer by partnering them with professional athletes.
Just then, Don nudged his son on the elbow. Former Pittsburgh Penguin Mark Recchi was sitting across the aisle.
“It was one of those moments when you know it is just meant to be,” Kushner said.
Garnering up his nerve, Kushner tapped Recchi on the shoulder after they disembarked, walked with him for 10 minutes through Pittsburgh International Airport, and told him of his idea to form an organization that would facilitate connections between children with cancer and sports legends.
“He looked me right in the eye, and said, ‘I think that is something that could really work,’ ” Kushner recalled.
Fast-forward four years, and Kushner is slated to be honored by the Boston Celtics at their Jan. 9 home game for his work at his now incorporated nonprofit CCChampions (CCChampions.com).
That’s a pretty big leap for the 21-year-old applied math major, who is planning to move to Boston in May to work full time as CEO of the organization that has already helped over 300 boys and girls battling cancer.
Kushner, who for many years planned to become a pediatric oncologist, came up with the idea for CCChampions the summer after his freshman year at Brown, while volunteering at a camp for kids with cancer in Toronto. That’s when he met Andy, an 11 year old, who Kushner describes as “the most diehard baseball fan I ever met.”
When Kushner, who is also a sports fan, saw how excited Andy became when the two talked about baseball, he had an epiphany.
“I realized that athletes are so much more than entertainment,” Kushner said. “They can inspire these kids to keep believing in themselves.”
Kushner took his idea to various hospitals, but while there was a lot of interest, no one wanted to sign on until he had secured the commitment of a cadre of athletes.
That’s where Mark Recchi came in.
Recchi facilitated some key connections for Kushner, which eventually led to him being contacted by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, which decided at its national board meeting to help CCChampions reach out to more than 6,000 athletes across the nation.
In October 2011, Kushner launched his pilot program in Pittsburgh with the Pittsburgh Pirates Alumni Association and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Since then, CCChampions has launched a chapter in Providence, and will launch its national headquarters in Boston in 2013.
Here’s how it works: a child diagnosed with cancer is paired with a professional athlete, who comes to the child’s home for an induction ceremony. For the next six months, the athlete communicates or visits with the child every two or three weeks.
“Every time they go in for [cancer] treatment, they have a letter in their hand and a jersey on their back, and inspiration from a professional athlete,” Kushner said.
Kushner has seen the impact that athletes have on the children. He recalled the first meeting of an 11 year old with Jim Rooker, who pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1979 World Series.
“Jim turned to the child and said, ‘I didn’t have all the talent in the world. I wasn’t the best, but I was pretty good. And so I beat the odds. And that’s what I want you to do,’ ” Kushner said.
A pep talk like that can make a difference.
“It changes the way kids think about their journey,” said Kushner. “Before, they felt alone, but now think ‘I’ve got a friend here that can help me accomplish something great.’ It’s like flipping a switch, from being alone to having a teammate.”
Kushner will be honored by the Celtics through their “Heroes Among Us” program, which has the team recognizing outstanding contributions to the community at each of its home games.
The honor will take place in the second quarter of the Jan. 9 Celtics game against the Phoenix Suns. The Celtics will make Kushner an honorary team captain for the game, and present him with an award at center court in front of 20,000 fans.
“Sidney was selected as a Hero Among Us recipient for going above and beyond to help those in need,” said Heather Walker, director of public relations at Boston Celtics in an email to the Chronicle. “He’s making a difference at such a young age by inspiring kids who are going through a difficult time battling cancer. We are excited to honor him next Wednesday.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)