University News

Program unites cancer patients, athletes

By
Contributing Writer
Wednesday, November 9, 2011

When Sidney Kushner ’13 watched 11-year-old cancer patient Brett Paterra meet former Pittsburgh Pirates player Jim Rooker for the first time, he felt one step closer to his goal of empowering children with cancer. “Just to see that kid’s eyes light up when the athlete walked in the room makes everything so worth it,” Kushner said.

Since his freshman year, Kushner has been developing the idea for an organization called Connecting Children with Champions, which aims to give strength to children with cancer by partnering them with professional athlete mentors. His idea came to fruition when the pilot program launched in October.

“Who better to serve as a role model than a professional athlete?” Kushner said.

Children diagnosed with cancer undergo an extremely difficult emotional process. “Studies have explicitly shown that the stronger relationships you have with the people around you, the better clinical results you will have,” Kushner said.

The program works in stages. First, the organization pairs an athlete with a patient based on the child’s interests, age and level of treatment. The athlete and child meet for the first time at an induction ceremony. For the first four to six months of the child’s treatment, CCChampions facilitates a pen pal relationship. “Every time the kid goes into treatment, the kid can have a jersey on his back and a letter in his hand, and he can feel empowered,” Kushner said.

At the end of the program’s first phase, the child is presented with a trophy at a “Winning the Championship” ceremony. “The trophy signifies that whatever happens, you have accomplished something great and you are an inspiration for all of us,” Kushner said.

CCChampions works together with Major League Baseball, pediatric oncologists and child development specialists. Kushner has built a network of over 6,000 athletes across the country.

Paterra’s family heard of the program through a specialist their son was seeing at the time. Kim Burns, Paterra’s mother, said she was elated about the opportunity for her son.

When Rooker visited the family’s house for the first time, he “sat at our kitchen table, sharing stories, and the two talked for nearly two hours,” Burns said. She added that Rooker let Paterra wear his World Series ring for the duration of the visit, one of the child’s favorite moments.

In the future, Kushner said he hopes to reach out to more teams, players and children. “We are going to start expanding across the nation,” he said. The program, so far only launched in Pittsburgh, will soon come Rhode Island, Kushner said.

“The thing about athletes is that, in order to succeed, you need to work with your teammates and coaches, and you’re always going to face problems,” Kushner said. “It’s the same thing with a kid with cancer — you need to work with your family and doctors, and there will always be that uncertainty. But as long as you have your end goal, it will be okay.”

Kushner’s positivity defines CCChampions and the families the program serves. “I see the inspiration in the ways in which a family and community can rally around each other and the good that can come out of it,” Kushner said.