What do you want to be when you grow up?
This recurring childhood question may seem fairly standard, with answers that could easily change from year to year or even day to day as kids are exposed to new and interesting possibilities.
While some children are making jumps from astronaut to football player to veterinarian, children diagnosed with cancer often must put their life and dreams on hold, making it hard to envision a post-cancer plan or even find their own identity outside of cancer.
At age 16, Pittsburgh native Sidney Kushner found out his friend Lauren had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. He remembers the day he was given the news and Lauren was pulled from school to get treatment.
“For the next six months, we didn’t hear from her at all as she was going through her cancer journey,” he said.
All Kushner could think about was what he could do to help his friend who was suffering through, not only cancer treatment, but isolation.
A few years later Lauren died, but Kushner’s want to help did not pass with her.
In 2013, Kushner founded the nonprofit organization Connecting Champions, which launched at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
Connecting Champions asks children and young adults who have or have had cancer, “What do you want to be when you grow up? What are you passionate about?”
They then find a mentor in that field who can specifically match the needs and personality of that young person so they can be there throughout the course of their cancer journey.
“Someone that speaks their language and not just the language of cancer,” Kushner said.
Mentors visit either in-person or virtually on a weekly to monthly basis for a minimum of six months and the visits can be anything from working on digital art together online to doing actual archeological digs from the comfort of their hospital bed or simply reading together.
“It’s not just a one-time thing or a series of feel-good moments,” Kushner explained. “Everything we do is throughout the course of the cancer journey so that we can help these young people achieve their greatest future. They tell us exactly what their vision is, and we can help them envision life beyond the disease in that way.”
Seeing some success at UPMC Children’s, Kushner said they were ready to start spreading the work they were doing across the country.
Several major cities like Cleveland, Boston and Detroit were considered for the expansion, but Kushner couldn’t help but recall the time he spent in Morgantown visiting his grandparents and the special place this city had in his heart.
“What kept coming back in my mind was my childhood and those summers that I spent on Cheat Lake,” he said. “And I thought about how special it would be to be able to bring Connecting Champions to Morgantown.”
It was 2019 and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect as WVU Hospitals was getting ready to open a stand-alone children’s hospital that would focus on treating its patients not just medically, but as a whole child or young adult.
Kushner hit it off with Pediatric Hematology & Oncology Division Chief Dr. Patrick Tomboc and a plan was made for the program to launch in June 2020, but then COVID happened.
While they didn’t hit that original launch date, Kushner said they found the work they were doing to be even more important during that period of intense isolation.
“So, we were actually named an essential worker and we launched the program in October of 2020,” he said.
Connecting Champions was fully integrated into the hospital care team and the staff were given the title “Friendship Champion.”
“In the same way that when a child or young adult is in the hospital they’re meeting their doctors, their nurses, their social worker … they’re meeting us as well,” Kushner said.
West Virginia Program Coordinator Skylar Spaulding visits the cancer patients at the children’s hospital in Morgantown, asking each one that timeless question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Now here we are, almost three years later and we are celebrating our 50th friendship,” Kushner said.
The main goal for Connecting Champions is to make sure kids and young adults who have or had cancer are able to receive the mentorship they need in order to step into their future.
An 18-year-old participant named Dallas stuck out in Kushner’s mind as a perfect example of what the organization is all about.
Dallas wasn’t really sure what he wanted to be when he grew up, but knew he was passionate about astronomy.
Connecting Champions worked to find someone in the astronomy field and was eventually able to connect with NASA.
“We paired Dallas with the woman who now runs the jet propulsion lab at NASA,” Kushner said. “Dallas and Andrea (his mentor) would meet regularly and just talk about space and science and astronomy and all these different things.
“It provided an opportunity for Dallas who comes from a rural community to be able to all of the sudden see professions that aren’t necessarily in his hometown.”
Through that, Dallas was able to envision school-wise what his ambitions could be and to try on different hats related to astronomy like engineer or scientist.
“The two of them met for months before Dallas said, ‘you know what? I am having a really great time, but I think I actually want to be a welder,’ ” Kushner said with a chuckle. “With young people when you give them that opportunity to envision their future, that’s what happens.”
So, they also found him a welder here in West Virginia and that connection went really well, but Dallas wasn’t done exploring the possibilities yet and decided he wanted to be a plumber.
“Dallas just graduated from high school,” Kushner said, “and he is in a trade program and is a plumber.
“Through our program he was able to find that direction that he didn’t initially have while going through such an intense cancer diagnosis.”
On the flip side, 11-year-old Audrey already knew exactly what she wanted to do – she wanted to be an engineer.
“For an 11-year-old to know that was just so incredible,” Kushner said.
Audrey was paired with an engineering student named Caroline and on a regular basis the two of them will hop on video and build different things. Most recently they built a virtual circuit online where Audrey on her computer and Caroline on her computer were chatting and building the circuit together.
Kushner said for their next visit Connecting Champions is going to mail supplies to both of them so they can actually build the physical circuit over video.
“It gives Audrey the opportunity to acquire hands-on skills, but also to just have a friend that is there to pursue the things that they love together,” Kushner said.
Kushner said the last three years at WVU Children’s have been exciting with participants being paired with everything from paleontologists to NASA scientists to veterinarians. They have even worked out mentors for participants interested in being Pokémon professors and ghost hunters.
“Whatever they dream, our job is to make it a reality,” Kushner said. “Sometimes it’s harder than others, and sometimes it takes time, but we will find that person who speaks their language and can help them continue to grow.”
Over the past three years, WVU Children’s has become the template for Connecting Champions’ expansion nationwide.
“Pittsburgh was the first place, but West Virginia was the place that other hospitals saw around the country, and they said, ‘That’s what we want, too.’ So, in a lot of ways, it was really the seed that was planted that started spreading across the country,” Kushner said.
Connecting Champions now works in 24 hospital systems across the country and is about to hit 400 friendships nationwide, but West Virginia is still one of three headquarters.
Kushner said while the organization is still fairly small, it is growing fast. Currently its two major goals are to grow fundraising efforts and to build a larger pipeline of mentors.
“It doesn’t matter if you think you have the coolest job in world or the most boring job in the world because chances are there is a young person who wants to be just like you when they grow up,” Kushner said.
For information on what it takes to become a mentor, how to donate or host a fundraiser in support of Connecting Champions, or to learn more about the work they do, visit connectingchampions.org.