By Ian Mikrut
Photography: Michael Fornataro
Sponsored by CONSOL Energy
At just 20 years old, Sidney Kushner founded CCChampions (Connecting Children with Champions). Originally started as a side project while he studied at Brown University, the organization focuses on providing long-term social support to children with cancer by connecting them with athletes, and other inspirational celebrities, and forging lasting friendships. “I realized that there’s a magic here and a magic I’ll never get the chance to be a part of except for right now,” says Kushner. His original inspiration hit as a junior at Upper St. Clair High School, when a close friend was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. “It was just so striking at that age to see the social and medical side of a friend going through cancer,” he says. “I knew I wanted to help more, but I was just too young to know what that meant.”
After graduation, Kushner aspired to become a pediatric oncologist, enrolling as an applied mathematics major with a focus on biology. Doing everything he could to stay along the path of medicine, he found himself working at a camp for children diagnosed with cancer. Within minutes, he forged a connection with an 11 year old devout baseball fan, named Andy, who helped set the foundation for CCChampion’s mission. Says Kushner, “You could tell that when talking baseball, Andy had totally forgotten about having cancer. He forgot about being out of school and in the hospital for months at a time, away from his friends. He forgot about not being able to play baseball, and he was just a kid again.”
Launching successful pilot programs with the Pittsburgh Pirates Alumni Association in 2011, and the Boston Celtics, Red Sox, and Bruins in 2012, Kushner realized that perhaps medical school wasn’t the answer for him. Though he graduated with a degree in applied mathematics, meeting all pre-med requirements, he decided to take on CCChampions full-time. Last year, the nonprofit was recognized by the Boston Celtics with the “Hero Among Us” award, was featured in the Harvard Business Review, and launched its headquarters in Pittsburgh. Says Kushner, “I never realized until I left how special a place Pittsburgh is because it’s got that big-city feel, where things happen and people see what happens here, but it’s got the small-town effect, where everyone is a part of something together.”
The next step? Making high-impact friendships. One of the more striking friendships championed was former Pittsburgh Steeler Tunch Ilkin with a 10-year-old boy, Mario, who was diagnosed with cancer. Ilkin’s presence with Mario and his family created a warm environment of embrace and support. They sat for hours talking about beating adversity, while building a friendship from the ground up. When Ilkin closed the induction ceremony with a group prayer, Mario, who is typically shy, ran to him for a hug. “It gives me chills still thinking about it because those are the types of magic that make all of this worth it,” says Kushner. “I know that I will never forget that moment. And, I know they will never forget either.”
Since its inception, CCChampions has worked with former Pittsburgh Pirate Jim Rooker, former Boston Red Sox pitcher Brian Rose, and former NBA champion Joe Hassett, among many others. The program includes everything from Skype calls before treatments and letters, to video game sessions and a day at the batting cages. And, every friendship begins with an induction ceremony, where the celebrity, child, and his/her family gather and share stories.
On October 9 in Upper St. Clair and October 16 in Hampton, CCChampions will host the Olympics, an event to celebrate the bravery of children fighting cancer in each specific district and to raise awareness and funds for the organization to continue its work, as well as to celebrate the bravery of kids with cancer in our schools. “The plan is to use Pittsburgh as the platform for us to go national,” Kushner says. “We want to be able to fund it here, build our team here, and build that magic here in a way that can be replicated in cities across the country.”
CCChampions hopes to hit it out of the park in Pittsburgh (pun intended!) and expand to help reach the 13,500 kids diagnosed with cancer each year.