Committed to the Quiet Heroes

Committed to the Quiet Heroes

Committed to the Quiet Heroes

Kristin Connor sat in a hotel coffee shop awaiting a meeting that she knew had the potential to change lives. The meeting had been arranged on a whim and with great hope that the conversation that would follow could shape the future of CURE Childhood Cancer—an Atlanta-based non-profit founded in 1975 to conquer pediatric cancer through funding targeted research while supporting patients and their families.

It was 2004, and Kristin’s own son had just completed treatment, coming out on the other side thriving and free of cancer. But while she had a healthy boy, she knew that not everyone had such an outcome; she witnessed firsthand the family prognosis of hardship that comes secondary to a pediatric cancer diagnosis. She knew, as a mother and as a member of the CURE team—that not only did she need money to support the cause, but she also needed a bit of celebrity influence to power the program to a new level.

At that point in its history, CURE was small but inspired, and as she sat anxious and ready, Kristin knew she’d only have a few minutes to make her case. Little did Kristin know that when Chris Glavine—wife of World Series champion pitcher and MVP Tom Glavine—sat down to join her, that she would find a partner so enthusiastic about the cause and dedicated to serving affected families. That when presented with the data and the personal stories, Chris would not simply answer with a check but with an emphatic “Count us in.” In that coffee shop, a relationship was formed with a singular, focused purpose—to amplify the voices of, and at times be the voice for, children suffering with cancer and their families.

More Than a Cure “Only four percent of federal cancer funding goes to childhood cancers. Four percent,” remarks Chris Glavine, who owns a house in Alys Beach with her husband. “When I heard those numbers, I just couldn’t believe it. I knew we had to be a part of closing that gap.”

“And there seems to be this misconception that childhood cancer is rare, but it’s incredibly widespread and far reaching,” says Tom. “Essentially, everyone knows someone whose life has been touched by childhood cancer.”

Since its inception, CURE has been 100 percent dedicated to childhood cancers, which are quite different than the types of cancers adults get. With a focus on precision medicine and local and nationwide research, CURE funds programs seeking to find targeted solutions and individualized therapies for children that wipe out cancer while minimizing the subsequent bodily damage that often results when adult cancer therapies are applied to children.

“Our goal in terms of research and treatment is to find a safe and effective cure for all children who receive the terrible diagnosis of cancer,” says Kristin, now executive director of the organization.

In the last ten years, CURE has funded more than $27 million in pediatric cancer research. That ground-breaking work has been an encouragement and relief to hundreds of families in the Atlanta area. But the work CURE accomplishes is truly twofold. While a focus on research and treatment is critical to the child’s wellbeing, it’s also important to remember that the types of hardships faced by families of children with cancer can be almost as devastating as the disease. It is here that CURE steps in, from the day of diagnosis and throughout the entire cancer treatment journey, to empower mothers and fathers to be advocates for their children and their families.

Family life has to change, often dramatically, when one of its young members has cancer. The entire family has to come together to rally behind the ill child; the parents are tasked with coordinating the treatment and care while also doing all they can to keep their family from fracturing. This effort often results in loss of income, as one or both parents must quit their work or take on less responsibility in the workplace in order to be with their sick child in the hospital. Indeed, more than half of the families that CURE serves incur some loss of income as a consequence of a child’s cancer diagnosis. Parents have the heartbreaking responsibility of telling their other children that life—sports, extracurricular activities, birthday parties and more—simply cannot continue in the same way it did before the diagnosis. The healthy siblings can feel left out, and sometimes they can resent not having the undivided attention of their parents. And the parents, these quiet and steady heroes, often find their marriages strained—a too common side effect of giving their all for their children.

It is in these moments—as parents, siblings, and patients do all they can to fight with bravery—that CURE shows up for the whole family. The organization provides comprehensive support through counseling and therapy services for all members of the family. They provide options and outlets. They provide confidence, guidance, and a hand to hold through each new, next step. And when the medical bills mount, and the financial pressures increase, they provide assistance.

“We want to make sure that parents are still able to provide for their families,” says Kristin. CURE has provided more than $1.7 million in family financial assistance in the past ten years, and the support extends even beyond. CURE brings in meals to the hospital for patients and families, providing parents who have been confined to a small room a taste of the outside world and a relief from the hospital cafeteria routine. They even step in as a powerful voice for families in crises. “I’ve spent hours on the phone with utility companies across the state, fighting to keep the lights on for families who have lost income as they pour their resources into their sick child,” she says.

When Kristin reached out to the Glavines in 2004, she managed an annual budget of $800,000. They were doing great work, but she knew they could do more. She had a vision: supporting cancer research as well as being a daily balm to families in various stages of their fight. The way the organization has grown is in no small part thanks to Chris and Tom Glavine. “They put their name and their hands on it and changed the game for us. It gave the organization a public face of legitimacy,” says Kristin. From that day in the coffee shop until today, the Glavine family has committed themselves fully to the cause of pediatric cancer through CURE.

The Quiet Heroes Chris says, “I would challenge you to find someone who doesn’t know someone affected by childhood cancer—at their schools, their neighborhoods. The whole notion that the numbers just aren’t there to support more federal funding…it just doesn’t make sense. We have to give these kids a fighting chance early on.”

“And the moms,” Chris continues, “I had read their blogs, I saw them at basketball practice, I saw them sacrificing everything while trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in the family, and I couldn’t understand how a family could simply be out of options when it came to a treatment plan for their child.”

Just after meeting Kristin, Chris and Tom Glavine hit the ground running. After witnessing mothers in their own communities dealing with the heavy burden of pediatric cancer, in Chris’ mind, the mothers of children with cancer are true warriors, heroes. “I said to Kristin, ‘How can this be? How can I help these moms who have given so much? Can we just take them to lunch? Just be there for them?’”

And it was through this compassion and desire to celebrate these mothers that the annual event A Tribute to Our Quiet Heroes was born. In 2005, the Glavines partnered in organizing an event to honor these deserving mothers—a beautiful luncheon that raised more than $100,000 in its first year. With the continued work of the Glavine family—as well as their hearts—the event has grown each year, drawing sellout crowds annually, and has now raised more than $5 million in research funds.

Chris and Tom are involved in every stage of planning and production—from campaigning for donations, to encouraging friends to donate and setting up for the event. “Tom and Chris are there and ready to work. Tom unloads the trucks and sets up the tables. You’ll find Chris on the floor unpacking gift items, assembling bags, and arranging the room,” remarks Kristin. And that’s simply how the couple and their family are wired. Inspired by CURE’s hands-on approach to caring for families, and equally inspired by the strength and perseverance of the patients and parents they’ve met along the way, they truly operate with empathy.

Each year at the event, Chris addresses the crowd, a task she admits she sometimes feels unqualified to do. “What can I say to comfort these moms? I haven’t lived their experience—what could I offer?" And Tom reminds her that while she may not know exactly what these families are going through, her presence means more than anything she could say.

“These moms just want a voice for their cause. They want to know someone is fighting for their children,” Tom explains. “So little is being done for childhood cancer, and it is an honor to advocate for them. CURE is right there with these families in battle. And it really is a battle. CURE is there to take care of their practical needs, and to seek funding for research, so these mothers can find the space and the strength to put on their armor and go to war for their children.”

And these mothers aren’t just fighting for their own children. Some of these families will lose their battle, and even still seek to support the mission of CURE. But the Glavines note the utter strength and camaraderie within the CURE family—these families and this organization are adamant that they will fight despite sadness and difficulty if it means someone else will not have to walk the same path.

Rising to Face a New Challenge It’s through events like A Tribute to our Quiet Heroes and others that CURE encourages community among those families affected by pediatric cancer. The event provides crucial resources for research, as does the annual black tie gala, silent auction, and other fundraising events.

But CURE, like most non-profits, has experienced an especially dramatic blow due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as have many of the families they serve. Events have been cancelled. Auctions become virtual. Vendors and partners who could normally provide financial support and donations are no longer able to contribute at previous levels, if at all.

“It’s really difficult right now. We lost nearly $2.2 million of expected revenue in the first quarter alone, simply due to event cancellation,” says Kristin. But it’s during this time that the needs of the families they serve have gone up tremendously. Ronald McDonald Houses across the country have closed. Job loss has escalated. The CURE team is no longer able to meet with families in the hospital at the time of diagnosis. Across the board, programming is affected.

“We are still working to provide housing and transportation for families who need to travel for treatment,” says Kristin. “We’re covering hotel stays, we’re doing what we can, but my greatest fear is having to tell a family that we just can’t help them.”

In the face of the pandemic, Chris and Tom are as committed as ever to finding funding and donations wherever they can, and they encourage others to do the same.

“There’s a joke that no one can say ‘no’ to Chris,” says Tom, laughing. “She’ll do whatever it takes for these families. She does it all.”

They have seen the direct impact CURE has made in the lives of children and their families, and though it may take a little creativity and extra effort, they are still pursuing the cause the only way they know how—with great kindness and even greater tenacity.

“Living in Atlanta, people recognize me, and they always come up to me to say hello. To say thank you. And at first, it was usually baseball-related,” Tom says. "But it’s been incredible how that has shifted as time has gone on. I’ve found, more and more, people will recognize me, stop me, and say, ‘Thank you for the work you and Chris are doing for childhood cancer,’ and that means a lot to me.”

To learn more about CURE and how to support the fight against childhood cancer, visit curechildhoodcancer.org, or just ask Chris and Tom when you see them in Alys Beach—they’ll undoubtedly encourage you to join them on the journey that has changed their lives and the lives of countless others.