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Career Day 2010 - Keynote Speaker

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Kristin Connor - Executive Director of CURE Childhood Cancer

Thanks for having me. I have to admit that I’m pretty nervous addressing all of you at Career Day. I was talking to one of the teachers who invited me to speak and I asked for some advice on how not to bore you to death and she said “Be funny and bring stuff!”  She told me you had a guy come once who threw t-shirts out into the audience and y’all loved that. SO when I heard this, I knew I was in trouble because being funny isn’t my gift…and I just can’t see myself throwing out a bunch of t-shirts that might not make it to the front row.

So I may not be able to offer you a lot of funny jokes and laughs and give away lots of free t-shirts, but I hope I can offer you some real life experience that is of some value to you as you think about what you want to do with your lives after you leave Blessed Trinity. I have to admit that when I was in high school – especially the first few years, I was thinking more about who I was going to go to the Friday night football game with than I was what I was going to do with my life. My school didn’t have things like Career Day to expose us to career options and get us thinking about what our interests really were nor did we have teachers or counselors or administration to help us think much beyond what colleges could we get into with our grades and SAT scores.

So that’s what I did- I looked at colleges and chose a good school with solid academics and good social opportunities that was close enough to home I could come home on a weekend here or there if I wanted to. Vanderbilt was my choice – and it was a good liberal arts school that offered well rounded educational opportunities. I’d had the chance to spend some time in Japan as a high school junior, and I thought international business was something I might pursue. Vanderbilt offered me plenty of opportunities in this area.

When I got to Vanderbilt, I got involved with a lot of volunteer things – I was in a sorority and we did a lot of service projects around Nashville, I was involved in “Vanderbuddies”, a program that paired us with inner city kids as big brother/big sisters. I took classes in the divinity school and did volunteer work relating to people living in poverty as, once exposed to the depths of poverty that existed right around our very affluent school, I felt like it just was right to be involved somehow in an effort to help.


Service and volunteerism weren’t things that were new to me. We didn’t have required service hours in school like y’all do – and I know you all think they are a pain and I’m sure there are plenty of you who appreciate them and many of you who hate them – but really, let me tell you that now, with the benefit of a little wisdom that comes with age – there’s so much you CAN get from service – even when it’s forced through service hours. The projects you might get stuck doing, like stuffing envelopes to help with a mailing or – what many of you do for my organization - CURE Childhood Cancer – helping set up for Lauren’s Run and picnic or you awesome strong guys who helping to take down the big inflatables after the picnic – you may think these things aren’t really helping anyone and wondering why you have to do it – but the point is you are being exposed to the fact that there are really needs in our community beyond our pretty comfortable lives. Many of the problems and needs the organizations you help are trying to address might not EVER even make it to your radar screen unless someone made you go out there and get some service hours.

I did a lot of volunteer work in high school – through my church group and other things….that’s really when the seeds of what I view as my servant’s heart were planted. Did I know back in high school that I would one day run a nonprofit organization or did I even aspire to that? No way! But those seeds were planted and I think what I learned at your age was that it’s actually really cool to serve people…I mean, have y’all experienced what it feels like when someone REALLY needs help and you step up to help them? I think that is a great feeling.

I graduated from Vanderbilt in 2001 and went straight to law school. At some point in college, I decided international business really was not for me, and I wanted to be a lawyer. I’d spent time in the summers meeting with some friends of my parents who were lawyers, trying to learn what a lawyer actually DID every day and I thought it was something I’d like to do. So I went to law school and got a job with a big law firm here in Atlanta right out of school.

I was a business litigator – I represented a lot of big companies in multi-million dollar law suits and I generally liked what I did. I worked really hard and to me, it was fun to craft the best, most persuasive arguments I could make basically about why my client or my position was right and I think I was fairly good at it. Honestly, I ran into a lot of people – opposing lawyers from big cities like NY and Chicago – who didn’t take me seriously – a small blonde woman from GA?! And I learned to appreciate being underestimated and take full advantage of it.  I advanced within the ranks of my law firm and made a great salary - all measures of success in this world we live in. Life was comfortable and pretty happy for me and I imagined I would just continue on with my law practice – well, forever…

And then life happened and everything changed for me. And the seeds I talked about – those seeds of a servant’s heart started growing.

In 2001, my 1 month old baby was diagnosed with an aggressive form of childhood cancer called neuroblastoma. I actually found out when I was 33 weeks pregnant that my unborn baby had a tumor on his spine. At the time, the doctors didn’t know what it was – there were a lot of different possibilities. Cancer was the worst of them. He was born 3 weeks later and at a month old we found out the tumor was cancer.

I know y’all are too young to be thinking about what it’s like to be a parent – but let me tell you there is nothing in life that prepares you for the moment you are sitting across from a doctor hearing that your child has cancer. It happened to me on Halloween, 2001 – I hate Halloween now. I really do. I will never experience another Halloween and not think of that terrible day. The day the doctor said my child had only a 40% chance of surviving to be 5 years old.

It was two years before my son – who I’m happy to say is now a happy healthy hockey playing 3rd grader at St. Martin’s Episcopal School – two years before he was cancer free and we don’t have enough time nor is it important to you for me to tell you what those two years were like for our family. What’s important for today is that you understand that everything changed for me during those two years. Absolutely everything.

I think we all get through really traumatic crisis in our lives by sort of going into a survival mode. You don’t have a lot of time to think about how awful things are, you just put one foot in front of the other and do what you have to do. That’s what I did for two years as I fought for my child’s life, kept working full time at my firm, taking care of my other 3-year-old son.


But then, when Brandon was cancer free, it all hit me like a steam roller. I began to process what I’d seen – the horrific treatments children I had grown to know and love were going through in an effort to save their lives – teenagers who in addition to losing their hair were losing their social lives as their friends kind of went on with out them while they were sick in the hospital, unable to go to football games and homecoming and parties…I saw kids die at the hands of a vicious disease.

And so I started researching – utilizing all the research skills I learned in law school to try to figure out what we are doing as a nation about this disease that is really affecting children in alarmingly high numbers. I don’t have to tell y’all this – you have classmates here and at Queen of Angels who have suffered so much with cancer. I found out we aren’t doing much to solve cancers that affect children and once I really understood that – I mean understood the real facts – I just couldn’t go back to litigating business disputes. I was trained in advocacy – trained to persuade and advocate – and I came to realize that all of that training and practice with business litigation was preparing me for what God REALLY planned of me to do – for what he PUT me here to do – and that is to advocate for children with cancer.

And frankly, some things happened that I think were acts of God pushing me toward His purpose for me. I met a famous baseball player and his wife - some of y'all probably know them - Tom and Chris Glavine. I grew up watching the Braves and admiring Tom Glavine as a GREAT pitcher - never imagining that one day I'd meet him and get Christmas cards from him...but in 2004, when I was researching and trying to find a way to bring more attention to childhood cancer, I met Tom and Chris through a friend whose son was also battling cancer and I asked them if they would help me. I never dreamed they would help as much as they have. Almost immediately, Tom went to the commissioner of major league baseball and asked him to do something to help - to get major league baseball involved with supporting childhood cancer. And he agreed. It was the first time MLB has EVER honored a player's request like this, and in less than a month's time, MLB launched the Commissioner's Initiative for Kids which raised nearly $1.5 million for childhood cancer research. Now, let's be real - I could never in a million years have made that happen on my own. I went in one month from never having met a celebrity to becoming friends with a famous baseball player and working with him to get a huge initiative off the ground which raised REAL money for childhood cancer research. In my opinion, that was God's work and Tom and I were instruments. It was really all that coming together like it did which gave me the faith to step out and change careers.

But I wasn’t actually all that brave – I mean, I had a successful practice, I made a nice salary – I still had law school loans to pay off…so I dabbled first. I took a leave of absence and worked for a national childhood cancer nonprofit. I knew nothing about nonprofits but I knew a LOT about the cause and I am a quick learner…so I learned all I could about the nonprofit world and after a year and a half, I decided I wasn’t going back to law. I still felt – and still do feel – God put me here to do this work. So I quit my job at the firm and took the helm at CURE Childhood Cancer, where I’ve served as the organization’s Executive Director for four and a half years.

I can tell you that what I do now versus what I did as a lawyer really is night and day different. I don’t work in a fancy office building with marble floors, special attorney dining rooms, and famous art collections. I don’t have my own secretary or paralegal or mail room staff or IT department…I have a staff of five of the most dedicated, hardworking committed people you could ever meet. I wear a million hats everyday:  I’m the strategic planner, the fundraiser, the marketing person, the accounting department. There is no task that’s beneath me or that I don’t or won’t do…I work harder than I ever did as a lawyer for half the pay – and I am happier than I ever was or would be with my career.

 

My job is not a job – it’s a personal mission – it’s my passion and my purpose. I listen to friends and neighbors complain about work or dread Mondays and I think about how lucky I am to be doing something I feel so strongly about and really love doing. There’s a lot of sadness and pain inherent in what I do, but I’ve come to realize what a blessing it is to be the person people feel comforted by when tragedy strikes them…what a blessing it is for ME to be able to comfort and help people who are facing something they NEVER thought would happen to them.

There are children I have met who have literally impacted my life as much if not more than my own child having cancer - a little boy named Carter Martin and a little girl named Catie Wilkins. Carter was a 6-year-old who loved soccer and so when his leg started hurting, his parents thought it was a soccer injury. But it turned out to be bone cancer – Ewing’s Sarcoma. I went to high school here in Atlanta with Carter's dad so we were old friends and when Carter was diagnosed, he immediately called me for help. 

Carter went through months and months of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery - he had a procedure called a rotationplasty - just like your classmate and my hero Sean Dever had. His treatment lasted nearly a year. Three weeks later, the cancer returned to his skull. He had his affected skull bone surgically removed and more treatment. Carter suffered like I have never seen and he died in Sept. 2004. But through it all, Carter was a kid - he smiled and laughed and came to love the Food Network. He played nerf baseball in the hallways of the hospital when he felt good enough. His older brother was his pinch runner. But Carter suffered. And his suffering and his spirit both affected me profoundly. I keep a picture beside my desk of Carter and I look at it every single day - every day I want to remember that child and what it is I'm trying to STOP.

The other child I mentioned is Catie Wilkins. Catie was a precious little girl diagnosed with brain cancer on her first birthday. Catie went through round after round of chemo, and the cancer never went all the way away. Catie's mom and I became close friends and I used to hang out with them in the hospital and bring her Chick-fil-A biscuits and sweet tea - yep, a 3-year-old who loved sweet tea! Catie got a common virus - strep - when she was just four years old. Her body was too weakened by the chemo to fight the virus and in Jan 2006, Catie died. I held her mom’s hand as Catie took her last breath and I will never forget it. Never forget the anger and grief I felt at that moment - and the resolve that as long as  live, I will work to find better treatments to fight cancer - treatments that don't weaken these kids bodies so much they can't fight common illnesses. 

I could tell you stories all day of kids with cancer which would, at the very least, cause you I hope to think about how lucky each one of you is. I could tell you about how in my job now, I've had the chance to meet people I never would've met as a lawyer, celebrities like Jeff Foxworthy, athletes like Tim Hudson...politicians and famous business people. I love being able to talk to them about these kids who need them and try to persuade them to help us fight a terrible disease. I could talk to you all day but you would get bored if you aren't already and your teachers would pull me off the stage...so let me wrap it up here.

So what’s my point to all of you? My point is not that you all should become career nonprofit professionals. Not at all. My point is really three-fold:

  1. Be open to experiences which will plant the seeds of the importance of service in you…be open to allowing the servants heart to develop. I used to hate when older people said things like this to me but really, I can tell you from my experiences that the POINT OF THIS LIFE is really to serve others. It really is. I am so thankful I realized that when I was 32-years-old and have the chance now to live that out…Some people go their whole lives and don’t get that…don’t be one of them. Allow yourselves to be exposed to circumstances and experiences where you can see that the world really isn’t all about you and life is really about serving others…there’s a joy and contentment that comes from that which I don’t think you get any other way. Regardless of what career you choose, you will have opportunities to serve - whether it's providing free legal services to those in need like I used to do or some other way - in every career, the opportunity is there. Please seize it. Serving others seriously enriches your life.
  1. Be open to life experiences and how God might use them to direct or redirect your lives. Like I said, I was on a clear path and God used my experiences to completely change my direction. You never know what he might be training and preparing you to do. I never dreamed I’d be leading a childhood cancer nonprofit – but I’m glad I was open enough not to miss this because I really LOVE what I do now – in a way I never loved being a lawyer
  1. This might be my most important point of all…find your passion. Find what it is that really makes you tick…whether it’s science or art or medicine or law or teaching or flipping burgers – it doesn’t matter – find what you are really passionate about and then do it well. You spend so much of your adult life – both time and energy – on your career. Don’t waste that time doing something you don’t really care about. Use these years as you prepare for college to explore as many options as you can and discover what you are passionate about.

It's truly been my pleasure to be here with you today. I hope you have a great day. Thanks for being such a great audience and good luck to all of you as you make important life choices.