Kushner ’13 recognized at Celtics game for nonprofit work

Nonprofit CCChampions plans to expand to the Northeast with a Boston area branch

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2013

Ten-year-old KJ stood with Sidney Kushner ’13 on center court during halftime of the Boston Celtics home game Jan. 9. This moment, which would be special for any Celtics fan, was especially significant for KJ, who is in the midst of a long battle with cancer.

He is one of many pediatric patients Kushner has worked to inspire through his nonprofit, Connecting Children with Champions, and these dedicated efforts led the Celtics to honor Kushner as one of their “Heroes Among Us.”

The Heroes Among Us program was established by the Boston Celtics in 1997 to honor individuals who have positively contributed to various causes and communities.

Kushner, whose organization works to form one-to-one long-term friendships between children with cancer and professional athletes, said he was initially motivated to create a way to  instill positive belief in pediatric patients after learning that over 350,000 children in the United States battle cancer. Kushner was aided by the Starr Fellowship, which provides support to aspiring social entrepreneurs at Brown. Initially based out of Kushner’s hometown of Pittsburgh, CCChampions has helped inspire over 300 children, expanded to the Providence area and will launch a larger New England chapter, based in Boston, within the next two months.


The beginning

Kushner said he was originally inspired by childhood hero Lance Armstrong.

“What he did on and off the bike, I felt like he was kind of doing superhuman things,” Kushner said. “I realized it’s what you’re doing outside the sport that defines your legacy. That opened my eyes to a whole new world.”

Kushner said he was also inspired by a personal experience he had with a friend in high school, Lauren, who was diagnosed with a rare form of back cancer.

“It was the first time someone close to me had been diagnosed with cancer, and what really struck me was how the entire community rallied behind Lauren,” Kushner said. “Unfortunately, she passed away, but it really lit (a) fire in me, since the community she had built was so inspiring. ”

In the summer of 2011, Kushner, eager to learn more, volunteered at a camp in Toronto for kids with cancer. It was here that he befriended an inspirational 11-year-old boy, Andy.

“He was the most die-hard baseball fan I ever met, and once I shared my love for baseball as well, his eyes just lit up,” Kushner said.

Kushner said it was at that moment he realized how professional athletes are much more than entertainment and could help children like Andy keep believing in themselves. Recalling his prior experience with Lauren, he put his idea into action.


Forming friendships

When children enter the program, he or she is paired up with a professional athlete in what is known as the “CCC friendship.” An induction ceremony, during which the child receives a personalized jersey with the athlete’s number and the child’s name, formally recognizes this new bond.  Six months of building and developing “team chemistry” follows the ceremony, said Kushner. The athlete, who serves as an inspirational pen pal and mentor, communicated with the child via letters, emails, phone calls, texting and even occasional visits. The relationship lasts six months, the average length of active treatment.

“During this time, the child is usually on really intensive medications and in the hospital months at a time, and it really removes the child from feeling like a normal kid,” Kushner explained. “So we introduce the child to a role model to allow them to be a normal kid again and have those big dreams.”

At the conclusion of the six months, another special ceremony is held, and the child is presented with a CCChampions Championship trophy.


Earning recognition

Kushner said being honored at the Celtics game was simply the icing on the cake — the most rewarding experiences have been seeing the children’s faces light up. “That is what I live for,” he said.

“They called me up and told me about the Heroes Among Us program,” Kushner said.  “They said they loved the work I was doing, especially at a young age, and asked me to come to the game to be honored. … I was speechless.”

Kushner was provided with four tickets to the game — one for him and three to share. Kushner said he immediately knew whom he would invite. A few weeks prior to the ceremony, ten-year-old KJ had signed up for CCChampions, writing that his biggest dream was to go to a Celtics game.

“As soon as the Celtics called, it made perfect sense to invite him and his parents,” Kushner said.

The days leading up to the big game were rough for KJ, Kushner said. Two days before the event and in the thick of treatment, he was hospitalized because his white blood cell count was nearly zero.

“The doctors told him that unless he could bring his count up, he wouldn’t be able to go,” Kushner explained. “As soon as the doctors said that, his counts skyrocketed, and that’s what CCChampions does … it inspires.”

It was only the second time in the past 13 months that KJ was healthy enough to leave his house, Kushner added.

Kushner said the most special moment of the evening was when he and KJ were brought out to center court.

“It was just the two of us standing on the big Celtics logo … everyone stood up cheering and it was one of the loudest and best moments of the entire game,” Kushner said. “It was an unbelievable experience for me. It’s great to be recognized, of course, but on a bigger organizational scale, it was the kick-off we need to make a huge impact in the Boston community.”


What lies ahead

After Kushner graduates in May, he will move to Boston to be the full-time CEO of CCChampions. Kushner said he hopes that by the end of 2014, the Boston chapter will be strong and the organization will expand across the country.

“Athletes have this message … if you believe in yourself, you can accomplish something great,” Kushner said. “When you say this to these kids, a switch flicks in their head that makes them realize they can do that too.”

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