Sidney Kushner never would have imagined his nonprofit touched so many critically ill children’s lives over the past 10 years. Since its inception in 2011, Connecting Champions, his nonprofit, has done just that – pairing up patients as young as 3 years old and as old as 26 with more than 54 professionals.

“We don’t call them mentorships. We call them friendships,” Kushner, 29, said. “And this is done intentionally.”

Based in Pittsburgh with branches in Washington, D.C.; Buffalo; Grand Rapids, Ohio; and Morgantown, West Virginia – Connecting Champions partners with local children’s hospitals to help kids and young adults with life-threatening illnesses better survive the nonmedical side of their diagnoses by asking a single question:

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Answers have varied from chefs to ghost hunters to marine biologists. 

From there, Kushner and his volunteers get to work finding a mentor for each child who can visit with them weekly to monthly every step of the way.

Regular visits include everything from playing Pokémon in the hospital to checking out the forensics unit in-between rounds of treatment.

According to Connecting Champions, although 84% of children and young adults survive life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, research shows they survive with significant social, emotional and developmental side effects as a result of intense treatment and severe social isolation.

Kushner said families are facing unimaginable levels of distress in and out of the hospital, creating a major barrier to effective coping. He explained how kids are being pulled from school, no longer able to achieve essential developmental milestones. Teens often struggle to envision their lives after cancer, or to develop a greater-than-cancer identity, he said.

“Cancer isn’t just an attack on one’s health, it’s an attack on one’s childhood,” the founder said.

‘Their eyes lit up’

One might wonder how such an impactful organization came to be. 

Kushner grew up in Pittsburgh and founded Connecting Champions as a 19-year-old in memory of his friend Lauren, who had cancer.

“It was during the time of pretexting, pre-social media, so there wasn’t an easy way to know how she was doing,” Kushner said. “One of the questions that kept rising in my head was, ‘How do you help a friend right now?’ ”

Kushner knew that his friend was going through isolation at that time, but wasn’t sure how to help.

Studying at Brown University, Kushner went in thinking he would somehow work his way into the world of oncology and pediatric cancer to give back.

But during a volunteer experience at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, he asked kids about what they liked to do and what they wanted to be when they were older. Kushner found that when he asked this, “their eyes lit up.”

“In that moment, you could tell they were themselves – not thinking about cancer, but the future and their passions they wanted to pursue,” Kushner said, “and that is what grew into Connecting Champions.”

‘It is a friendship’

After graduating with a degree in applied mathematics, Kushner set out to build his organization. To date, the team has made more than 250 friendships.

One such friendship that was set up in Cambria County followed the world of law. The mentor, Ellen Doyle, 70, of the northern Oakland part of Pittsburgh, had been accepted to the Pennsylvania Bar in 1975, and she became the director of the Pittsburgh American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter, serving as a volunteer and legal counsel. From there, she worked for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, representing those in employment discrimination. Since 1982, Doyle has worked in private practice.

Doyle became involved with Connecting Champions when she received notice from the ACLU that an organization had asked to find a female lawyer who could be a mentor to a young cancer patient in Johnstown.

Noting that many of her other colleagues had families and were preoccupied with their careers, she responded to the notice and was referred to Connecting Champions. Previous to this experience, Doyle had mentored a few other students who were in college and studying for a legal profession. She noted that there was going to be a difference between the relationship she had with the younger students and the college students.

“As I began to get to know the girl I was paired up with, I felt uncomfortable calling myself a mentor because when I thought of what a mentorship was – one person having/knowing things the other did not – I realized that in this situation, our connection goes both ways,” Doyle said. “It is a friendship.

“I didn’t know what it was like to be a child with cancer,” said Doyle, who has known people with cancer, but not intimately involved with such a diagnosis.

“I got to talk with her and build a relationship of closeness and candor. I also got to see what it was like for the family. It sensitized me to how challenging it was.”

Two-way relationships

Ellen and her mentee shared a relationship both inside and outside the hospital including reading books on legal, social and worldly topics, attending guest speaker events for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and Pittsburgh Speaker series, visiting the Pittsburgh Zoo, and meeting for lunch to catch up and explore the legal world.

“I think Ellen really put it best,” Kushner said, “a mentorship is more formal and business-like, but what has been shown through Connecting Champions is that it really does go both ways.”

Kushner said that if you are a professional who has something to share, he encourages you to reach out to Connecting Champions and make a lasting friendship.

For more information, you can visit the organization’s website at www.connectingchampions.org.

Sophia Tuinstra is a junior at Westmont Hilltop High School.

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