Live Mutual: Helping kids with cancer

Kelly Kowalski, Cliff Noreen, and Bronwyn Shinnick

Posted on February 25, 2021

Karen Setzko is a communications consultant for MassMutual.

Terrence McAllister, a financial professional with the Pittsburgh agency, was initially drawn to Connecting Champions when he overheard a conversation about the success of the nonprofit and its unique focus on mentoring children diagnosed with cancer. At the time, McAllister’s mother was battling cancer and, knowing she wished to support a nonprofit with a direct, local impact, he felt compelled to get involved.

Founded in 2011, Connecting Champions is a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization that mentors children and teens who have cancer with the goal of helping them psychologically and socially during their cancer journey. Integrated with local children’s hospitals, the mentoring program is offered to each newly diagnosed child and family with no restrictions regarding age, prognosis, race, ethnicity, or income level. The nonprofit’s objective is three-fold: outreach to understand needs, match with a mentor, and weekly or monthly “friendship” moments to drive positive outcomes.

Mentoring process: from diagnosis to community integration

As newly diagnosed children meet their care providers, they also connect with a Connecting Champions ambassador, who asks, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“Their eyes light up and, in that moment, they totally forget about having cancer; they’re just kids again,” McAllister said.

Within four weeks, the children are connected with a local mentor in one of over 50 career paths.

The mentor is there every step of the way for the months or years of the child’s cancer journey from diagnosis to integration back into the community. Mentors visit the kids as much as once a week for a minimum of six months and are instrumental in helping them reach key milestones, developing a greater-than-cancer vision, and creating a post cancer plan.

Mentorship in action

One example is Madison, a hockey-loving teen who was matched through Connecting Champions with her role model Dan McCoy, a Paralympic sled hockey world champion, gold medalist, and MVP. McCoy visited Madison in the hospital where he shared stories of playing hockey with the Pittsburgh Penguins and even let Madison try on his gold medal! They hit it off right away and their friendship bloomed due to their Pittsburgh roots and love of hockey.

McCoy invited Madison and Connecting Champions to the Penguins training arena where the two friends donned gear and played sled hockey.

“We’re thankful for friendships like Dan’s and Madison’s that always bring a smile to our faces and remind us how lucky we are to be able to do what we do,” McAllister said.

Developing meaningful friendships

In the five years since joining Connecting Champions, McAllister set up the Brain Trust, a group of young professionals serving as strong ambassadors of the organization’s fundraising and idea-generation activities. He became a board member, helping to make major decisions about the annual budget, strategic planning, expansion, while also setting up the organization’s first retirement benefit program, which significantly helped recruit and retain talent.

However, the relationships McAllister has developed have been the most meaningful part of his experience, particularly one with Katie, a cancer survivor and Connecting Champions kid. McAllister and his family have been mentors for Katie, helping her navigate college, manage her finances, and develop self-esteem. Her family became part of his, from socializing together to watching Katie receive her diploma on graduation day.

“Katie taught me so much about life,” McAllister said. “She taught me that we can overcome anything we face. She taught me to take my eyes off of myself and help others in need, even if I'm going through something tough. Katie is a selfless, caring warrior and I'm glad we had a chance to meet through my volunteer work with Connecting Champions.”

Katie talks often about how McAllister and his family have changed her life forever.

“Connecting Champions saved my life,” she said. “Without them in my life during treatment, I don’t think I would have had the will to keep going. I credit them with being a big part of who I have become as a person.”

Grant to fund program’s expansion

McAllister’s work has been recognized with a MassMutual Foundation Community Service Award in 2020, resulting in a $10,000 grant for Connecting Champions.

“Connecting Champions has received national recognition and is ready to replicate its groundbreaking program in new cities,” McAllister said. “Not only will the grant provide life-changing support, but propel Connecting Champions toward national expansion.”

The MassMutual Foundation will award 32 CSA grants this year: two $25,000 Platinum Awards, 15 $10,000 Gold Awards, and 15 $5,000 Silver Awards. A total of $275,000 will be paid directly to eligible nonprofits in the name of the winning financial professionals.

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