Crain’s Chicago Business: Feature Story on Komen Chicago Associate Board President
Why Cancer has become Young Execs’ Preferred Charitable Cause
More diagnoses among millennials mean an influx of youthful board members, and volunteers, for charities devoted to the disease.
By Lisa Bertagnoli
Louisa Olushoga was 28, in the middle of her medical training and raising two small children when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Going through treatments, the last thing on her mind was volunteering at a nonprofit. Then she saw a Facebook post announcing Susan G. Komen Chicago’s new associate board. “I said, ‘I’d love to hear more,’ ” says Olushoga.
That board launched in 2017, and Olushuga, now 32 and a resident psychiatrist at the University of Chicago, is its president. Its members are five women with a direct or indirect connection to cancer, including “pre-vivors” who carry a gene that predisposes them to cancer. Olushoga is organizing “Dare to be Aware: My Mind. My Body,” an education program that will deliver information on mental and sexual health through citywide seminars and webinars. “I want to reach as many women as possible,” Olushoga says. “I want to be that face, that network, for young professionals directly affected by cancer.”
Cancer, the saying goes, doesn’t discriminate. Nearly everyone has a relative or friend who’s been diagnosed with the disease. The new generation of cancer volunteer? Younger people like Olushoga, who themselves have faced a cancer diagnosis.
That group is growing. About 70,000 people ages 15 to 39 receive cancer diagnoses every year, according to American Cancer Society research. With 9,000 deaths a year, cancer is the fourth-leading cause of death among young adults, behind accidents, suicide and homicide. Rates of colorectal, kidney, pancreatic and other obesity-related cancers are rising faster in younger people than older people. The cure rate among younger people hovers around 80 percent, meaning there are more survivors who can donate to, volunteer for and become involved with cancer charities. And they are—to educate about cancer, return a kindness or jump-start their volunteer efforts. “The donor base and the philanthropy world are changing. They’re getting younger,” says Tiosha Bailey, 39, executive director at Susan G. Komen Chicago. “They’re tired of the status quo. They want to get involved and get their friends involved.”
The American Cancer Society’s Associate Board of Ambassadors gets an average of 3.6 applications a week and has more than doubled in size, to 135 members, over the past five years. Six members have or have had cancer, and last year, one of them died. “When you lose someone on the board, it definitely makes it real,” says Adam Schlesinger, board president and a senior manager at consultancy KPMG. The board has made several changes to attract ambitious young professionals. For instance, it replaced an “everybody’s welcome” policy with a joining process that includes an application, an in-person interview with Schlesinger and a formal vote by the board. It has also launched March to 1 Million, a campaign to quadruple annual board fundraising to $1 million by 2023. “Millennials want to make a big difference,” Schlesinger says.
The American Cancer Society’s Associate Board of Ambassadors’ Brittany Hahn VanCamp Award recognizes exemplary commitment to the organization’s mission. VanCamp died of cancer in 2018 at age 32. Her sister, Joey Doney, left, presented the inaugural award to board member Kelly Nelson, right, in October. Doney joined the board after her sister’s death.
The March to 1 Million helped draw Morgan Bellock to the ambassadors board. Bellock, 35, was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer in 2017. Until then, cancer hadn’t touched her life, and her family had no history of the disease. “It was pretty life-changing for me when I was diagnosed,” she says. In 2018, she met with Schlesinger and joined the board. Her interest in the American Cancer Society lies in the organization’s smaller efforts, like providing lodging for the families of patients. “Sometimes the smaller things are really hard for people,” says Bellock, who lives in East Lakeview and owns a public relations firm.
Bellock spends about five hours a week on board-related work, including rounding up items for the American Cancer Society’s Discovery Ball gala and attending board meetings. She plans to become even more involved in the organization and hopes to join the local chapter’s executive board one day.
Joseph Allegretti, 26, volunteers at Imerman Angels, a Chicago nonprofit that connects cancer patients with cancer survivors. Allegretti was diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was in eighth grade. When he was undergoing treatment, Allegretti’s father met Jonny Imerman, founder of Imerman Angels. The organization paired Allegretti, who had played sports his entire childhood, with a professional hockey player who had had the same type of leukemia. “I saw someone who beat the cancer I had, and who went on to live a normal life playing sports,” Allegretti says. Allegretti, who works in public accounting, became an Imerman Angels mentor in 2012 and joined its professionals board in January. “It’s my nature to give back,” he says. “There’s always someone who needs a smile, who needs someone to talk to.”
The desire to repay a kindness drew Barb Nocula, 40, to Culinary Care, which delivers donated restaurant meals to people receiving outpatient cancer treatments. Nocula, a high school teacher, was diagnosed with early-stage ovarian cancer in 2015. She had surgery and then six months of preventive chemotherapy at University of Chicago hospital. Because hospitals don’t generally provide food service for outpatients or guests, a friend or relative would have to go out to find food for them during her eight-hour chemo sessions.
Then Nocula learned about Culinary Care. Her first meal, salmon with kale salad from Doc B’s, helped her handle the physical and emotional challenges of cancer. “Sitting in a chair for eight hours of chemo was rough,” she says. It also helped the person who drove her to treatments. “To not burden the person I’m with, to sit there for eight hours, it’s really great that someone can deliver food,” Nocula says.
Nocula began volunteering for Culinary Care’s annual cookoff fundraiser, and in 2018 she joined its 15-member associate board. She leads the board’s compassion committee, which coordinates volunteer efforts and connects Culinary Care donors and clients. The committee is exploring ways to deepen that connection, perhaps through handwritten notes of encouragement to deliver along with the meals or to have patients tell their stories to donors. Nocula’s experience with cancer helps guide the committee’s thinking. “What I can bring is how they would feel supported when they are receiving chemo,” she says. That’s a volunteer gift only she, and other cancer survivors, can give.