Pittsburgh Changemaker: Sidney Kushner
By Trevor Miles
Kelly Strayhorn Theater is presenting local leaders that have been changemakers in Pittsburgh. Mentors, teachers, artists— KST acknowledges these pioneers. This is Our Story: KST Recognizes Pittsburgh Changemakers.
Sidney Kushner, Founder & Executive Director of CCChampions.
1- What do you do for the community now and why is it important?
Hi! My name is Sidney, and I’m the Founder & Executive Director for the nonprofit CCChampions.
CCChampions is an up-and-coming 501(c)(3) nonprofit in Pittsburgh. Our mission is to help kids who have cancer through six month-long friendships with the most inspirational role models in the community. Our kids are carefully matched with athletes from the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, and dancers, teachers, police officers, and everyone in between.
59% of children diagnosed with cancer suffer from serious long-term psychosocial side effects (lower graduation, higher depression, etc.). Our friendships are about so much more than a feel-good moment. Everything we do is uniquely research-based and outcomes-driven. Our friendships are powerfully built to steer child cancer patients back onto the path of a happy & healthy developing childhood.
2- What is one defining moment of your life? (When you decided to do what you’re doing now).
When I was in high school, my friend Lauren passed away from an rare form of cancer. Watching her go through that two-year journey, I knew I needed to help—I was just too young to know what that meant.
So I started listening.
Photo Courtesy of Whirl Magazine
That’s when I met Jenny, a nine year-old cancer patient who changed my life forever. She had recently braved a tough cycle of chemotherapy treatment, and it didn’t work. By the time we saw her in the hospital, she had been out of school for months, her head was bald, and it was time for a bone marrow transplant. She was terrified.
When we asked Jenny what she wanted to be when she grew up, her eyes lit up: “I WANNA BE A DANCER!” Before she was diagnosed, she and her friends would dance together every single day. So for the next 25 minutes, we sat around Jenny’s hospital bed watching music videos of all her favorite dancers. Jenny’s role models were so much more than entertainment. For her, and so many other kids with cancer, they’re a reason to keep believing.
It was incredible. Any time you mention dancing to Jenny, there would be such a magic in her eyes. You could tell in that moment, she totally forgot about cancer and was just a kid again.
As we were saying goodbye, Jenny’s face changed, and she all of a sudden got very serious. It was as if a switch flipped in her head. We asked her what she was thinking about, and she looked down, thought for a second, and turned to us: “I’m just afraid that all of my friends are going to forget about me because I have cancer.”
Hearing that from a nine year-old girl, was heartbreaking. Being out of school for so long, away from her friends, and not able to dance anymore—Jenny was afraid that she would be forgotten.
And she’s not the only one.
That fear of falling off the map is pervasive. We hear it from so many kids, parents, doctors, researchers, and hospital staff members. In the field of pediatric oncology, something is missing.
Jenny inspired me to start CCChampions.
Photo Courtesy of CCChampions.
3- What advice do you have for youth that want to become a changemaker in their community?
(1) Surround yourself with experts. As a college student, you’re often the least knowledgeable person in the room (let alone the field you’re working in). Identify the people who also care about the problem you’re trying to solve, and ask them for help. People feel honored when you kindly ask them for help (and sincerely listen), and it’s a great way to gain leverage quickly.
(2) People invest in people, not in ideas. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your business model is. If I don’t think you are capable of making it happen, I’m not going to jump on board. You’re selling yourself just as much (if not more) than you are selling your idea. Wear your passion on your sleeve, and share it with anyone and everyone willing to listen!
3) It’s about listening, not telling. The more you can listen to your customer base, your network, your team, the more effectively you’ll be able to make your impact and grow. Every time you speak with someone-—new or old-—have a goal to learn something new, build an asset, etc. I know how hard it is for us entrepreneurs to stop talking about this incredibly exciting product that we have that will change the world forever. But trust me, knowing when to shut up will become one of your most valuable skills.
Photo Courtesy of Molly Page.
(4) Understand the problem, NOT the solution. The best solutions are responses to well-understood problems. An easy entrepreneurial pitfall is to understand a part of the problem, come up with an exciting solution, and then blind yourself to the real problem in its entirety. Take lots of time to sit down and think about what is so wrong. Why is it so bad? Why does it exist? And if it’s so bad, why hasn’t it been fixed yet? Simply put, the better you understand the problem, the better you can build an effective solution.
4- What is a songs are on your playlist?
Blue Skies by Ella Fitzgerald and Heroes by David Bowie.
To read more on Sidney and his work, check out this article on millennial leaders. CCChampions is also hosting its Night of Inspiration benefit March 11, 2015. You can get tickets and more event details here!