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Pedal to the Metal

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Born out of a mother’s efforts to raise her son’s spirits while he battled bone cancer at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, ConKerr Cancer provides a simple pleasure to young patients: pillowcases. For each of Ryan Kerr’s treatments, his mom Cindy had sewn a fun, new pillowcase for him. Though this year marks the second anniversary of the former Conestoga High School student’s death, Cindy pushes onward with ConKerr.

“It has given me a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” she says, clearly viewing the organization as Ryan’s tangible legacy. “If I sat in a corner and did nothing after his death, that would have been a disservice to him. As a family, you don’t want your child forgotten, and while Ryan didn’t want ConKerr to be about him, he definitely has been the inspiration for it all.”

After witnessing how something as simple as a colorful pillowcase could improve her own child’s day, Cindy realized she could help other CHOP patients by making pillowcases for them, too. “When you’re in a different environment, having something bright and cheery in your bed lets you know that someone cares, and it brightens up your room so it’s not such a sterile place,” she says. “It doesn’t only bring a smile to the kids’ faces but, as a parent, there’s nothing better than seeing your child smile when they’re going through this.”

While Ryan’s cancer went in and out of remission, he remained one of the most fervent champions of his mother’s efforts, and soon, the work of the Kerr family and their friends expanded. By 2006, the pillowcase project had become far bigger than Cindy’s solitary sewing machine. A student club at Conestoga, founded that same year, gave it a name—“ConKerr Cancer: A Case for Smiles”—and the group was registered as a not-for-profit organization.

An appearance on The Martha Stewart Show in 2007 launched ConKerr into the national spotlight, and since then, the number of hospitals receiving ConKerr pillowcases has jumped from six to 146. Today, more than 156,000 pillowcases have been donated to sick children around the world, including South Africa, Canada and Australia.

Truly humble, Cindy was honored as a National Woman of Worth by L’Oréal Paris in 2008. She deflects praise from herself whenever possible. “If it wasn’t for the Main Line area, we would not be where we are today,” she says. “It clearly is something that’s very grassroots; it started here, and we could not have continued growing without them.”

To learn more, visit conkerrcancer.org.