Campus & Community

A Cause to Be Proud Of: Stevens Students Support Brain Cancer Research and Awareness

Brain cancer is a life-shattering disease. Patients with brain cancer rarely live beyond five years of diagnosis.

When Kristen Gillette personally experienced the devastation of this awful disease – her daughter, Kortney Rose, passed away in 2006 at the age of 9 just four months after being diagnosed with a rare brain tumor – she found a way to channel her grief and assist other families affected by pediatric brain cancer by founding the Kortney Rose Foundation (KRF), a nonprofit organization that raises awareness of pediatric brain cancer and supports disease research and prevention efforts.

In the past five years, the KRF has raised more than half a million dollars for a brain tumor research program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) through a series of fundraisers, including: teams of runners in the New York City and New Jersey marathons; Kortney’s Challenge, a two-mile run/walk in Oceanport, N.J.; Great Food for a Great Cause, a day in which patrons at any of seven Turning Point Restaurants locations  who donate to the KRF receive gift cards for their next visit; and Kortney’s Coins for a Cure, which collects change from local schools and business.

Today, four standout Stevens students – Kimberly Baker, Alex White, Ryan Bridge and Lisa Dillon Zwerdling – are contributing their time and knowledge to the KRF, helping the organization advance its mission and reach.

Dillon Zwerdling – a graduate student in the Stevens Healthcare Leadership and Management program – is a good friend of Gillette’s. A nurse who has worked with the Visiting Nurses Association Health Group for 19 years, she became a board member of the KRF so her skills and experience could support efforts to raise money to directly fund new research.

“Pediatric brain tumors are a leading cause of death in children, but there is a paucity of good research and insufficient funding to support much needed investigation,” Dillon Zwerdling said.

For her final project in one of her Stevens courses, Dillon Zwerdling highlighted the KRF and discussed its funding mission. The story sparked an idea from Dr. Don Lombardi, industry professor of healthcare at Stevens. He was enthusiastic about helping to promote the organization while at the same time providing Stevens students with the opportunity to benefit from a real-world internship. He organized sponsorship for the interns through the Stevens Healthcare Educational Partnership (SHEP), a program he directs which works with state-wide healthcare systems to provide management training to medical professionals.

Gillette balances her role as president of KRF with a full-time job, so she relies on volunteers and interns like the four Stevens students to keep the organization’s operational functions running smoothly and ensuring its series of annual fundraisers are effective.

“The commitment, passion and expertise of the team from Stevens have been extremely helpful,” said Gillette. “I look forward to great things evolving with their assistance.”

“They are bringing energy, ideas, enthusiasm and real organizational assistance, and they have been able to tap into resources we couldn’t reach and haven’t had the manpower to develop,” added Dillon Zwerdling.

With Dillon Zwerdling serving as “team captain,” the Stevens students have pitched in on a wide variety of mission-critical tasks.

Baker, a Biomedical Engineering major and Gear and Triangle Scholar, is organizing a 5k race to be held in April on the Stevens campus to raise money for the cause.

White, a Biomedical Engineering major who has already been accepted to four top universities for a direct undergrad to Ph.D, is designing fact sheets to increase education and awareness of pediatric brain cancer and researching grant possibilities. With Baker, he also created a corporate sponsorship package so the KRF can hopefully form more partnerships like the one they have with Turning Point Restaurants, which last year raised approximately $15,000.

Bridge, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, All-American wrestler and President’s List scholar, is redesigning the KRF’s business systems and helping the KRF on the financial end with the creation of reports and strategic planning.

“Dr. Lombardi and the Stevens interns have been incredibly generous with their time and energy and the KRF is very grateful for their service,” said Dillon Zwerdling. “They have been able to help educate the public and spread the word in a way that will be lasting and make a real difference.”

With the students’ hard work and dedication as a driving force, Gillette is looking forward to the coming months, in which the KRF will focus on obtaining corporate sponsorships; running an awareness campaign in May to coincide with brain tumor awareness month; and maximizing its KRF’s marketing and communication strategies and press relationships.

Likewise, the Stevens students are eager to see the KRF’s efforts make a real difference in fighting an awful disease.

“Brain tumors affect a lot of children,” Bridge said. “I believe the Kortney Rose Foundation is a great program and can really help.”

“Having been involved in research here at Stevens for the last several years, I understood the KRF’s mission and was eager to help,” added White. “I was amazed at how little research is being conducted on such a prominent disease, and I am confident that others will feel the same as I do if we can spread the word effectively.”

Lombardi is proud Stevens has become involved in such an important cause.

“An adult never stands taller than when they reach down to help a child. The work of our Stevens students in this effort is an exemplar of that maxim,” he said.