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Nonprofit Champions Against Cancer works to help kids of cancer patients

For Howard Magazine
This Howard County nonprofit is working to help the children of cancer patients.

The 17-foot fishing and pleasure boat on display at a memorial service for John L. Champion spoke volumes about the man, who was so well-loved that friends decided to launch a Howard County nonprofit in his name.

The Highland resident’s prized Boston Whaler served as a testament to his ability to talk shop with colleagues about his complex work on satellite devices, yet just as easily discuss boats over a beer with a new acquaintance.

Two devoted friends refused to let Champion’s abiding interest in people from all walks of life and his deep love of family go uncelebrated after his untimely death at age 46, following a 10-month battle with lymphoma. Mere months after the March 2014 passing of the popular and respected scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Doug Silverstein and Tim Finkelston hatched a plan to form Champions Against Cancer, and the all-volunteer organization officially became a nonprofit in February 2015.

The foundation focuses on re-establishing a sense of normalcy for children affected by their parents’ cancer. The group raises funds and provides logistical and emotional support to keep their day-to-day lives on an even keel as much as possible.

“When someone becomes ill with cancer, everyone is focused on their treatment — and rightfully so,” says Finkelston, a Clarksville resident who was Champion’s closest friend. “But kids are often left to deal with it in their own way without any guidance or counseling.”

Direct-assistance awards can be used to pay for anything that eases the burden on kids — such as music lessons or sports camps — but also for their parent’s or guardian’s medical bills. The awards are available to applicants ages 21 or younger who have a parent or guardian living or working in Howard County with a current or previous cancer diagnosis.

College scholarships of $1,000 are also handed out, up to two per Howard County high school. A maximum of $2,500 is available annually per family.

“The name Champions Against Cancer just popped into my head because it was what we were going to be,” says Silverstein, the foundation president.

“We’re not eradicating cancer,” says the Columbia resident and pediatric kidney specialist. “What connects us is John, and we’re honoring his memory by helping families in the community. His kids meant everything to him.”

Since its inception, the organization has taken in $125,000 and has doled out just over half of that amount on monetary awards and fundraising expenses for events, such as its second annual Golf Classic, scheduled for Sept. 19 at Hobbits Glen.

In May, $11,000 worth of college scholarships was distributed. One of those scholarships went to Long Reach High School graduate AJ Gilbert.

His mother, Robin Gilbert, fought breast cancer twice a dozen years ago. The Elkridge resident says her illness deeply affected her son.

AJ, who plans to attend the University of Maryland, College Park, chose to write an essay for his application on how scared he was when visiting her in the hospital and the lasting impression that left on him.

“I still always make sure to tell my mom good night or to give her a hug every day, and I tell my friends to do the same to their moms,” says AJ, who has a 12-year-old sister, Kelsey.

His father, Gary Gilbert, says the couple was honored that their son was recognized with a financial award, “but the awareness and support [the scholarship] conveys to those affected is worth far more.”

“Not too many groups reach out to kids, but they’re a people-friendly organization that has brought a positive outcome to a negative situation,” says Robin Gilbert, who teaches ballet and also works as a special-needs student assistant for the county school system.

George Zibragos, a technician at Town and Country Auto Repair in Dayton, had a more recent experience with cancer. The Mount Airy resident underwent surgery on a brain tumor in December 2014 that left him unable to work for five months, he says. The $2,500 awarded to his family in June 2015 on behalf of his two children and two stepchildren provided a much-needed boost at a critical time, permitting him to pay his medical bills.

Zibragos says the foundation has been extremely supportive, both financially and emotionally.

“They aren’t just a good organization — they’re good people,” says the Frederick County resident. “The award wasn’t something I was expecting. It put a big smile on my face, but it also brought me to tears after all the stress of medical bills piling up. It’s been a struggle.”

John Champion’s widow, Amy, who works on the foundation’s board to qualify prospective awardees, says she’s humbled by the organization’s determination to memorialize her husband in such a meaningful way.

“It can be very expensive to have cancer, and that’s why this mission is so important,” she says.

Finkelston says they wanted the Champions’ children — Ellis, who is 19 and a rising sophomore at the University of Virginia, and Luke, who is 16 and a rising junior at River Hill High School — to know that their dad touched a lot of people.

“It sucks that he’s gone, but we’re going to help a lot of people in his name — that was our message to them,” says Finkelston, president of a retirement planning firm. “We wanted them to know their father was loved.”

Ellis Champion says that knowing families are being helped is very gratifying.

“Cancer is an awful, awful thing to battle, but, as my family learned, having the support of friends and your community can make a world of difference in the fight,” she says.

The nonprofit has also awarded $2,500 each to the counseling centers at Howard County General and Johns Hopkins hospitals. Long-term goals are to expand to surrounding counties and to develop long-term partnerships with other hospitals.

“John’s death was not in vain; he lives on,” Silverstein says. “Every time I see Amy, I hope that she sees this organization as John’s legacy.”

For more information on the foundation or the golf outing, go to champsagainstcancer.org

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