With balloon animals and magic tricks galore, Steven and James had yet another smile-filled visit during Steven's appointment at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.
James helped bring brightness and joy to a day that Steven does not necessarily normally look forward to. James showed Steven a few of his gag tricks and even gave him a lesson on how to make his very own balloon animal!
When Steven was given a choice of who could help him with his medicine, he chose his new friend, James (who was experienced, having two daughters of his own). And James was all too happy to help. Steven even went so far as to say James is is new favorite clown -- even more than Penny Wise from the IT movies (which Steven adores).
Kyle is a man with a plan and a passion for food. We first met Kyle during one of his appointments at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. There was no hesitation when we asked our famous questions, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Kyle's eyes lit up and the excitement began to bubble as he informed us of his plan to become a chef. While he does not yet have much professional cooking experience or training, he loves food and knows that is the path he most wants to explore.
We found the perfect chef for Kyle at the Omni Bedford Springs Resort who was just as excited to meet Kyle as Kyle was to meet him. For their first visit Kyle and his family were invited to Chef's Table, an exclusive event where guests are seated in the kitchen for an interactive dinner experience. To Kyle's surprise, he was immediately put to work as the assistant preparing food for the 12 guests in attendance.
Kyle went home with a happy belly and smile on his face and can't wait for his formal cooking lessons to begin!
Our future constitutional lawyer, Sophia, and her mentor Ellen were out and about recently at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project annual celebration. Ellen invited Sophia to the event as her special guest. Sophia was able to meet the keynote speaker, Dr. Yusef Salaam, one of the Exonerated 5 (Central Park 5). Sophia was able to spend some time talking with Dr. Salaam and ask some questions for projects she is current'y working on. She was also able to spend time talking with Lisa Middleman (candidate for Allegheny County D.A.) and several other exonerated individuals from Western PA. It was a powerful and inspirational evening enjoyed by all.
Addison's three favorite things are dancing, singing, and showing anyone who will watch how much she loves dancing and singing! We found the perfect mentors for her -- two musical theatre students at the University of Pittsburgh. Addison couldn't wait to meet her new friends, Julia and Juliana. She was excited to have a new audience to show off her moves to and who whooped and cheered her on at every turn.
The fun didn't stop after Addison ran out of moves! These new friends spent the Saturday afternoon coloring, telling stories, signing autographs, and "oooing and awwwing" at Addison's Halloween costume. Everyone left with smiles on their faces and full hearts, looking forward to the next time they get to meet.
Meet our sweet young friend, Giana! At three years old, Giana isn't quite sure what career path she intends to embark on. Giana is, however, a very social and outgoing young lady and doesn't get to spend as much time with her friends as other kids her age due to treatments and doctor appointments. So, she asked us to find her a "big kid friend" who could spend time with her and play during her hospital appointments. We had just the perfect Big Kid Friend and were so excited to introduce Giana to our friend Julie, a pre-med student at Pitt!
These two new friends met for the first time last week and hit it off immediately with smiles all around!
Giana was riddled with much anticipated excitement on the car ride to the hospital knowing her new Big Kid Friend would be there waiting for her. Julie, equally excited to meet her new friend, arrived bright and early for Giana's 7:30 AM appointment.
Wasting no time, Giana immediately began all of sharing her "favorites": her favorite games, favorite toys, favorite color. They discovered they have much in common, including pink colored bedrooms, a love of all things Toy Story, and a fondness for creating make-believe worlds out of Play-Doh.
On her way home from the hospital that day, Giana told all who would listen about her new Big Kid Friend, and how she can't wait to see her the next time she has to go to the hospital.
Business savvy, ambitious Shania isn't letting anything, including cancer, stand in the way of her dreams. At 21 years old, Shania is a junior at IUP studying business. When asked what she wants to do when she grows up, she immediately answered without hesitation, "own and operate a beauty salon." With a passion for fashion and an entrepreneurial mindset, she's already leagues ahead of most young women her age.
When we told her the famous nail artist and salon owner, Aliya Wray, wanted to meet her, Shania was beyond excited.
When Shania and Aliya first met, they talked for almost three hours straight. Aliya spoke about her background and shared her wisdom on starting and growing a successful business in the age of social media. Aliya gave Shania tips for getting her YouTube channel off the ground, and even gave Shania a sneak peak at her brand new location in Pittsburgh's Southside.
Before parting Aliya gave Shania a gift bag full of Aliya Wray swag, including a set of custom press on nails, a satin hair bonnet, and one of her "Girl Boss" t-shirts. The two finished their "date" with a trip to the Milk Shake Factory, and Aliya invited Shania to her upcoming soft opening of the brand new shop !
After Sawyer and Matt's first meeting during one of Sawyer's treatments at UPMC Children's Hospital, these two couldn't wait to get together again! During their first visit, Matt brought a few fossils for Sawyer to examine, they discussed some of Matt's discoveries, and Matt promised a behind the scenes look at his workplace -- The Carnegie Museum of Natural History!
With clearance from his doctors, the day finally came when Sawyer could meet Matt in his world. Sawyer and family made the 3-hour trek into town, brimming with excitement, to go on their journey through prehistoric time.
Included in the day's adventure was a trip to the "Big Bone Room" (actual name), where Sawyer got to see the very first T-Rex jaw bone ever discovered, an inside look at how fossils are prepared for display, as well as a personal tour of the museum by Matt, who discovered many of the dinosaurs on display.
This young palaeontology fanatic definitely went home with a smile on his face and dinos in his dreams.
Words can't describe how full our hearts are after the incredible success of the 5th Annual Night of Inspiration. Featuring the return of our favorite emcee, Sean Nolan, a Connecting Champions alum, Night of Inspiration left us all with smiles on our faces and memories to last a lifetime. The festivities included Inspiration Awards presented to our kids by their mentors, the annual future champs award, a Q&A session with our future police office, Amber, and her mentor, Sergeant Colleen, and a trip through Connecting Champions' history with our very first kid, Camden! With record breaking attendance, together, we raised $75,000 for the kids in Connecting Champions! The night was full of smiles and love in celebration of our amazing kids!
Inspiration Award winners Kelsey, Kara, Tristan, and Camden
Amber and Sergeant Colleen Discuss the impact of their friendship
During a Night of Inspiration exclusive question and answer session, Amber and Sergeant Colleen discussed their friendship, the impact their relationship has had on each of them, and their history with Connecting Champions. Their adventures together include visits with the bomb squad, the forensics lab, the K-9 unit, the police academy, they participated in traffic stop and firearms training, and learned about explosives at the bomb squad’s practice range. It was truly inspirational to hear how their friendship has grown and how they have inspired each other over the years. Amber's experiences gave her something to look forward to as well as career perspective and insight into a field she is passionate about.
THANK YOU to everyone who attended, donated, and supported our kids!
The bar has definitely been set high by the 2019 Night of Inspiration, and we couldn't have done it without the support of so many of you! Our hearts are full and we can't begin to put into words how much we appreciate all of you. This was truly an inspirational night and has given us memories to smile about for a lifetime. Thank you for helping us celebrate the amazing bravery of our kids!
We would like to give an incredibly huge THANK YOU to our sponsors!
Kara, Chris, and Melanie could spend hours discussing theories, investigation techniques, and telling stories from their own personal experiences. Their most recent ghostly adventure consisted of an actual investigation of the famously haunted Hill View Manor in New Castle, PA. They began with a full guided tour of the facility, which included its history and countless accounts of unexplained phenomena that occur there. After the guided tour, they were granted permission to explore the space on their own and conduct a small scale investigation. Many good times and good spooks were had.
While talking about the weather may be idle small talk for most people, for our friend Mackenzie, it is the source of much passion and excitement! Mackenzie's face lights up at the mention of a weather front or possible pop up thunderstorm, and she's happy to share her own predictions and weekly forecasts. When we told her Ashley Dougherty of WTAE Pittsburgh wanted to invite her out the the studio, she was beside herself with anticipation.
Mackenzie and her family drove down from Titusville early one morning to meet Ashley at WTAE studios before one of Mackenzie's appointments at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Nervous about meeting a weather superstar, Mackenzie was rather quiet at first taking in every aspect. Ashley, ever warm and welcoming, greeted the family with hugs and some surprise swag, proceeded by a tour of her workplace.
Mackenzie was in awe of the technology used in the studio (her second love after weather is buttons and gadgets!) and was fascinated when Ashley showed her how weather predictions actually happen! They spent some time in front of the green screen practicing their broadcast skills. Next time Mackenzie visits, they plan on recording her own (un-aired) weather segment... and they plan on having a green tablecloth handy to turn her into a floating head!
A love of police vehicles + an invitation from Chief Scott Schubert to visit Pittsburgh Police HQ + a special demonstration by the various police speciality units = smiles for days!!
We told the Chief about Tristan's love for police vehicles and flashing lights and Chief said "Bring him on down -- we have plenty of those around!" Tristan was greeted with the warmest of welcomes by Chief Schubert and members of the Pittsburgh Police! Tristan and family got a tour of of Police HQ, tried on some of their protective gear, and made many new friends -- among them the mounted police, motorcycle unit, bomb squad, and SWAT!
Having this day to look forward to gave Tristan and his family something to look forward to and memories to hang on to forever. Thanks Pittsburgh Police!
By: Teresa Dietrich
Sophia Tuinstra spent the days leading up to her first meeting with mentor Ellen Doyle, constitutional lawyer, studying the constitution and having nurses quiz her on various components. And when she met human rights activist and lawyer Bryan Stevenson she was prepared with a scrap of paper filled with carefully thought out questions. Although Sophia embodies the maturity and dedicated nature of a seasoned lawyer, she still finds joy in trips to places other than the nearest courtroom. Last week, she and an entourage of family and Connecting Champions members visited the Pittsburgh Zoo.
Sophia was there to visit with her favorite animal--the red panda. Equipped with a panda-decorated shirt and a visible enthusiasm, Sophia and her group were escorted into the habitat of the red pandas at the zoo. The beautiful animals were draped over branches and perched on tree stumps, eagerly greeting the zookeepers and allowed Sophia to gently stroke their heads.
Never without a smile, Sophia was enamored of the soft, reddish-brown fur of the pandas. Throughout the time there, Sophia absorbed the facts the zookeepers told her, her quick mind filing them away with the lists of constitutional amendments. It was wonderful to be able to provide the opportunity for Sophia to meet the red pandas, and while she still plans on going to law school, we know that if anyone can get a law passed to allow red pandas in courtrooms, it’s Sophia.
By: Teresa Dietrich
Music production has become an increasingly salient aspect of modern life: the popularity of music platforms and ease of streaming has ensured that the majority of people incorporate music into their daily life. But not everyone who listens to music is as passionate about it as our champion Noah. Noah is interested not only in the aesthetics of music, but in the technicalities of music composition and production. Knowing this, we matched him with mentor Steve, a music producer well versed in the ins and outs of music tech and production.
The two talked harmoniously for much longer than Steve had planned to be there, sharing music they’d written and discussing the difficulties of writing music for films. Steve was happy to share with Noah his own experiences with the music industry, and Noah listened raptly, tuned in to the opportunity to learn more about his future career.
Steve and Noah also delved into the heart of music, speaking about the emotional impact music has on people and how this both inspires their own music careers and influences their musical interests. The technical and emotional sides of music play off of each other and contribute to the rich world of music production, a world in which Noah sees himself playing a part in the future.
By: Teresa Dietrich
Why do we read with our kids? There are obvious benefits to reading aloud to kids: exposure to syntax helps with the development of language skills, spending time together strengthens bonds, familiarity with plot and characters helps develop schemas that make interpreting higher level material easier, and so on. And these are benefits that any kid gains from being read to, not just those diagnosed with cancer. For our kids, however, there’s an added element of importance to reading together. Between lengthy hospital stays and prolonged treatments, school can sometimes fall by the wayside. It’s a goal of Connecting Champions to help prevent language regression in our kids, and one of the ways we accomplish this is through sharing our favorite stories.
Especially with our kids under twelve, reading is often a significant aspect of developing our friendships. Through the consistency of our interactions and our ability to maintain our presence without requiring immediate interaction we can build up the trust that enables our friendships to flourish. Exercising concentration skills and stimulating the brain are important for kids who are planning on returning to an academic environment in the near future, but even more valuable to those facing longer in-patient visits. Reading, which strengthens comprehension skills, also helps children process more complex ideas. This can be useful in guiding children through the cancer process and providing multiple tools for conceptualizing treatment as well as offering stories of hope for the future.
Connecting Champions strives to affect positive change across various developmental fields, and we make sure to dedicate time towards enhancing academic skills, supporting literacy and verbal skills, and providing creative stimulus. Reading to our kids is an important part of our friendships, and we hope that everyone incorporates more reading into their friendships!
By: Teresa Dietrich
Jackson is passionate about trains, so when he went to visit the Science Center in June he gravitated towards the model train exhibit. There he met an orange vested train buff who carefully explained how the mechanisms controlling the trains worked. He held out to Jackson miniatures of train cars and pointed out the stylistic differences to the awe-struck boy. Jackson, who finds walking difficult, was braced against the railing encircling the train table. Despite the difficulty, he managed to spend most of his day at the Science Center on his own feet, helped by his mother, who tries to make him walk as often as possible in order to exercise the muscles of his legs.
Jackson’s parents were extremely happy that Connecting Champions was able to provide for outings that catered to his interests and made the task of walking easier. Thankfulness radiated from both parents as they watched their son making his way carefully around the train table, hands wrapped around the supports. Jackson’s father took many pictures to commemorate the event, standing to the side with a big smile as his son excitedly pointed at train cars and toggled the switch that controlled some of them. Watching the trains was a treat for Jackson, who marveled at their carefully choreographed movements and lit up every time Thomas the Tank Engine came back into view.
By the end of his two and a half hours at the science center, Jackson had learned much about trains, and was even presented with a bright red Lionel train car by the train conductor. Jackson left the Science Center clutching his new model train and eager to return to the Science Center for another trip.
By: Teresa Dietrich
Sean Nolan is comfortable on camera. During his interview he maintains eye contact with the questioner, doesn’t fumble his answers, and speaks in a steady way indicative of his dreams of becoming a sports broadcaster. And when he speaks about Connecting Champions, his eyes and voice light up with the passion he feels for the organization.
“I’ve learned how just one person’s dream can become such an amazing story… and how giving back can do so much to you as an individual,” he says, hands folded in his lap. Sean was fifteen when he was diagnosed with cancer, an age where, as his father puts it, “we’re just worried about our world and what affects us.” But Sean has a calmness about him that magnifies the strengthening of his spirit that has occurred and that his father, Rich, is so proud to witness.
His friendship with sports broadcaster Joe Block was an incredible way to learn all about the ins and outs of his potential future career, and having a friend with whom he could talk about “everything” was an indispensable part of helping Sean manage the cancer process. But it was also part of an eye opening experience involving those who give back to their community in some way. Rich expresses that “When you’re affected by a disease such as lymphoma I think you really realize what’s going on around you… you become more in tune with life. Sean has become more giving with his time, more thoughtful, and more kind.” Seeing those selfless qualities mirrored in his mentor helped Sean recognize the impact that acting on the impulse to volunteer with others can have.
When Sean was approached by someone hoping he would volunteer to spend time with a boy suffering from a brain tumor, Rich wasn’t sure how his son would react. But Sean leapt at the opportunity to become a mentor in his own way, and when he first met the boy he immediately got down on his level and engaged him in conversation and play. His ability to “get down on the level of anyone” regardless of their differences is what tells Rich that “Whatever Sean decides to do Sean is going to be a success at.” This giving quality was amplified by Sean’s diagnosis as well as his friendship with Joe, and his father believes that “without this journey, that spirit might not have come through in such an immense way.”
This journey and Sean’s relationship with Connecting Champions has opened his heart and his mind in ways that for some people take years or never happen at all. Inspired by his friendship with Joe and his realization of the importance of giving back, Sean believes that “The miracle of life is being able to use my story and my battle to help somebody else.” Sean and his family have been uplifted by their communities throughout this trial and in turn they have become inspired to go to greater lengths, to give not just of their time, but of their hearts.
My experience with Ellen has had a big impact on me. Not only have we explored the law field together; but Ellen has become a close friend. When I was much sicker, and not able to leave the hospital, Ellen would come to my room and we would talk about how each of us were doing and then that would lead to books and magazines she gave me to read. We would discuss what we learned, what we thought was interesting, and then from there, we started to pin point what I was drawn to in the legal community.
Together, we attended a Moot Court at the University of Pittsburgh. A month later, we had the chance to meet the author of a book we just finished reading together, Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, a criminal justice lawyer who defends the poor, wrongly accused, and condemned. Not only did we hear him speak at the Robert Morris University Pittsburgh Speaker Series, but I also got to ask him all of my questions with Ellen at a reception and dinner before the event!
All of these experiences I’ve had with Ellen, even during my long stays in the hospital have helped me to have a positive outlook on my cancer treatments. Every time I read a book or article that Ellen sends me, or when we call, or go to an event, I forget about my anxieties and my situation. We are planning out our summer together and I can’t wait!
I appreciate so much Connecting Champions and all they have done for me in fostering this connection between us.
By: Teresa Dietrich
Izzy Tetino has been an important member of the Connecting Champions team since her sophomore year of college when she and her roommate found the Pitt Connecting Champions Club (CCC). For some people, joining this club would have been just a resume booster--but Izzy and Nicole, her roommate, saw the opportunity to affect real change through their participation. Eventually they began running CCC themselves, and through their strong leadership were able to pull together fundraising events, craft nights, and fun outings for some of the kids. They threw a birthday party, went to the zoo, and went pumpkin picking in the fall.
Over the three years she was involved with CCC, Izzy got to know the Connecting Champions employees and founder Sidney. She even became a friendship mentor, and for her capstone graduation project she helped develop novel aspects of Night of Inspiration, creating the Wall of Stories. So when she graduated in December of her senior year, no one was surprised when she became a Connecting Champions intern. Over the sixth months of her internship, Izzy worked tirelessly for the organization, calling it “one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.”
Even though she’s since graduated University of Pittsburgh and has moved on to graduate school, studying to become a physician’s assistant, Izzy continues to assist the organization in any way she can. This month she began meeting with Connecting Champions to discuss the year’s Night of Inspiration. We know that with Izzy to help us, Night of Inspiration will continue to be one of the best nights of the year!
By: Teresa Dietrich
Hannah’s personality can be described as “big and funny.” She’s outgoing and friendly, with a wide range of interests that made finding her a specific mentor difficult. But when the decision was made to pair her with Arias, it was immediately obvious how great a decision that was. Hannah is an animal lover capable of sustaining lengthy conversations involving her five pets, especially her frogs Hops and Bob. She’s always willing to help out in the garden or to embark on a cooking adventure, two areas of interest that she shares with Arias.
Although it’s immediately obvious to anyone who meets her how joyful and exuberant she naturally is, when Hannah first met with Connecting Champions in October she was much more subdued and shy and would often fall asleep soon after visitors arrived. But it was clear how much she enjoyed having visitors come and talk and read to her, and the constant attention and care provided by Connecting Champions enabled her to find comfort and familiarity in an environment that originally challenged her. Hannah is again a happy, outgoing girl. Some of her recent adventures include making homemade marshmallows and a trip to Disney World, where she got to meet Winnie the Pooh and his entourage.
During Arias’s most recent visit with her, Hannah was seated animatedly on the bed, excited for whatever games and fun were arriving. The two played several hands of Crazy 8s, one of the many games that keeps Hannah occupied, and were sent into peals of laughter when cans of Silly String were introduced. Hannah is a long ways away from where she initially was after her diagnosis, and it’s clear that her Connecting Champions friendships have played a crucial role in her resilience. Now, she’s looking forward to her peach tree at home bearing fruit for the first time and for the next visit from her friends at Connecting Champions.
By: Teresa Dietrich
Steven is a small and excitable child, his gap-toothed smile frequently lighting up the room. His cheerful attitude appears to perfectly align with that of a child interested in clowns, but when Steven expressed his wish to meet one, he was looking more for horror than laughs. Despite his young age, Steven’s favorite movie is the critically acclaimed IT. Coy, a member of the Connecting Champions team, explains that Steven can frequently be found curled up with his iPad watching YouTube clips from the movie--only the scariest parts, too (however, Steven watches them in Polish, which he does not presently speak).
When Coy told Steven that a clown named Happy Harry had been found and was interested in meeting him, Steven was mildly disappointed. “But where’s my Pennywise?” he asked. Coy carefully explained that, despite Steven’s known penchant for horror, Happy Harry has taken a solemn oath to never frighten a child and wouldn’t even be in full costume the first few times he visited. “We wanted him to understand that James--Happy Harry--is a real person under all that makeup,” Coy said, and Steven’s mother agreed that this would be a good way to introduce a clown to her son.
Although Happy Harry can’t scare Steven, he provides a service even more appealing: making balloon animals. Steven was mollified by the knowledge that he would be in the presence of a balloon master, and by the time the two met he had forgotten his desire to be scared.
The first time they met, James didn’t look much like a clown: he wore jeans and a blue plaid shirt and had opted to bring a regular red clown nose instead of the official clown nose he glues on for performances. In spite of his average appearance, Happy Harry quickly proved himself a capable clown. His gags and magic tricks were all met with brilliant smiles from Steven, who watched enthralled as Happy Harry tore paper into shreds and then shook it out to reveal an untorn paper hat.
When the two got to the balloons, Steven watched as Happy Harry deftly inflated and twisted them into animals and swords. Happy Harry was happy to share one of the most important tricks of balloon shaping with Steven: clown approved balloons. By the time Happy Harry had to go, Steven was equipped with a balloon hat, balloon swords, and balloon animals. His small room was bursting with colorful clown paraphernalia as the two said goodbye, and James promised to become a frequent visitor at the hospital while Steven undergoes treatment. It’s safe to say that Steven has a new favorite clown now!
By: Teresa Dietrich
Sawyer perched on his dinosaur themed bed, tyrannosaurus rex mask hung above him, his early enthusiasm for meeting paleontologist Matt much more subdued now that he was actually being introduced. But we knew that despite this he would warm up. Sawyer is in general an energetic and enthusiastic kid, and a great deal of his enthusiasm is directed towards dinosaurs and all things prehistoric. When presented with the career question, Sawyer had his answer instantly: when he grows up he wants to be a paleontologist.
The presence of a professional can often leave kids reserved and unsure of themselves, and for the first fifteen minutes Sawyer spent a lot of time looking down at his Jurassic Park shirt or listening as Matt tossed out facts about fossils and dinosaurs. Eventually, Matt presented Sawyer with an obscure fact involving ancient reptile family trees. Sawyer immediately leapt into the conversation, his earlier reticence dissipated by his joy in confirming that he not only knew that particular fact already, but had several of his own he’d like to share.
The two discussed events from millenia ago as though they were as familiar as yesterday’s news. Matt shared some of his discoveries with Sawyer, including the 72 million year old vertebrae of a megalodon, one of Sawyer’s favorite prehistoric animals. Sawyer carefully held the vertebrae; cradling a little bit of prehistory in his small hands, the childlike joy that had originally been hidden shone through.
During the course of their conversation, Matt revealed that every year new prehistoric species are discovered and more sites are scheduled for digging. So, he explained, there will be plenty left to discover by the time Sawyer’s old enough to be a paleontologist. By the time Matt left, Sawyer was glowing with new knowledge and the promise of a trip to the Museum of Natural History.
Meet Tristan- one of the happiest guys we've ever met! We think we might look forward to our visits with Tristan as much as he does! With a cheerful attitude and smile as Tristan's it's hard not to feel the giggles come on ourselves!
When we met Emily, a Pitt volleyball player who is equally as bubbly and cheerful, we knew they were the perfect match! Emily and Tristan hit it off right away. Emily was especially impressed with (and maybe even a little jealous of) Tristan's dinosaur PJs. Tristan LOVES dinosaurs! Everyone had a fantastic time playing make believe and making silly faces, and Tristan and Emily can't wait to meet again at Tristan's next appointment!
Kelsey and Kathleen are at it again! When these two get together, the room is full of nonstop chatter. Kathleen recently visited Kelsey during one of Kelsey's hospital visits, where they talked about everything from Kelsey's hair bow collection, the latest happenings in the world of wresting, Kelsey's dog, Kathleen's summer plans, what's happening in Pitt Cheer, and the recent Pittsburgh Marathon (which Kelsey's parents ran!).
Kathleen recently visited Kelsey during one of Kelsey's hospital trips. Kelsey was so excited to know that Kathleen would be there waiting for her at the hospital. She knew she had something to look forward to that day. She loved introducing "her friend Kathleen" to her nurses as they filtered in and out of her room. Never a dull moment, they talked about everything from Kelsey's hair bow collection, the latest happenings in the world of wresting, Kelsey's dog, Kathleen's summer plans, what's happening in Pitt Cheer, and the recent Pittsburgh Marathon (which Kelsey's parents ran!). They discussed their summer plans, and even talked of a possible park visit with Kelsey's dog in the near future! Kelsey was sad to leave Kathleen at the end of the appointment and she can't wait to see her friend again soon!
When Heather Grace Thomas reached out to us last October asking if she could represent Connecting Champions in the 2019 Pittsburgh Marathon and run in memory of her cousin, our former intern and volunteer, Victoria Ondo-Burnfin, we were flattered and honored, but little did we know the incredible impact this kindhearted, passionate woman was about to have on our organization.
Last summer, the world lost a beautiful and loving soul to a battle with cancer; Victoria Ondo-Burnfin - former Connecting Champions role model and intern, beloved wife, daughter, cousin, and friend to so many. Seeing the passion and love Victoria had for the kids involved with Connecting Champions, Victoria’s cousin, Heather Grace Thomas, wanted to carry on her legacy and memory through a positive impact for our kids.
When we began this journey together, we had no idea how far it would take us. It took us much farther than the 182.8 collective miles that our team of 19 ran during marathon weekend. Every goal we set, we met, but our team was relentless in continuing to push themselves and each other, both in their training and their impact on Connecting Champions. Time and time again we hear that there is something different about running for someone or something. It’s not about you or your personal doubts or fears. You’re not there for yourself. You’re there for a purpose and you keep putting one foot in front of the other, because someone is counting on you. You made a promise. This amazing team made their promises to our kids. For months they trained in the rain, in the cold, the heat, snow, the wee hours of the morning, and after long days at work when many others were relaxing and winding down for the night. They trained and they ran and they shared the Connecting Champions kids’ stories, spreading awareness for our organization and our cause. In just its first year of existence, the Connecting Champions Pittsburgh Marathon Charity Team in Memory of Victoria Obdo-Burnfin raised more than six times our original fundraising goal. Many of our team members set personal records of their own; first race, first half marathon, first full marathon, a PR. They dedicated so much of their time and of themselves to our kids and every bit of it shows in the lasting impact they have created.
From the very beginning, our team captains, Heather Grace Thomas and Alanna Figurelli, have been a beautiful combination of smiles and good cheer with drive and commitment, never losing sight of why we took the first step in this journey. Not only has our team raised $12,669 so far, making 50 friendship moments possible in the coming year and creating countless smiles, but they have begun what we hope to be a Connecting Champions tradition for years to come. A tradition of passion, selfless athleticism, and of carrying on the loving memory and legacy of Victoria through the smiles of the kids in Connecting Champions. We know that this is the start of something truly beautiful and we look forward to watching it grow and strengthen, and our impact spread. So be on the lookout next year for the Connecting Champions shirts in the sea of runners and send a little extra love and encouragement their way for all that they’ve given for our organization and for our kids. Maybe even consider lacing up those running shoes and creating some smiles with us next year!
By: Nicole Destefano and Isabela Tetino, Little Champ Role Models
When we first met Avery in January, we knew she would have us wrapped around her little finger in no time. We had heard wonderful things about Avery from Sidney, Jen, and Coy prior to meeting her for the first time and we were beyond excited to meet her. Just as Jen had advised us, we showed up that day ready for Barbies, board games, and manicures—all of Avery’s favorite things.
At first, Avery was clearly nervous to meet us (and we were just as nervous to meet her too!), but within minutes she was chatting up a storm and showing us all of the toys in her room. During that hour and a half, I think we managed to play with every toy in Avery’s room. From Hello Kitty bingo, Candy Land, and her Doc McStuffins veterinary set, Avery succeeded in keeping us busy the entire time we were there.
At the end of our first visit, Jen asked Avery if it was okay for us to come back and play again and Avery immediately answered yes. We couldn’t wait for next Wednesday to see what else she had in store for us.
However, due to conflicting schedules, we were unable to see Avery for a few weeks. When we finally had the chance to go back, we felt nervous all over again. Would Avery still remember all the fun we had a few weeks ago?
As soon as we walked into her room, it was obvious that Avery was just as excited for us to be back as we were. We started our morning with Go Fish and Candy Land and Avery showed us all of her awesome new birthday presents.
Then Jen brought out the nail polish and we spent the rest of our morning at Avery’s personal nail salon. She even managed to convince her dad to get a manicure! Once again, an hour and a half flew by and Avery managed to keep us busy and laughing for every second.
It is truly an honor to be involved in an organization as amazing as CCChampions. Of course our main goal is to allow Avery to have time to just be like any other normal kid, but in a way, Avery has reminded us how to be a kid again too! We are definitely wrapped around her little finger and we spend each week waiting for our Wednesday morning play dates.
Types of Friendships