Teen project has matured into a valued resource for families of kids with cancer.

Rourke Adams remembers the first time he spoke with Nellie Corriveau. The then-16-year-old girl called him at work to see if his daughter, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, could appear in a fashion show.

The call changed a lot of lives.

For the last decade, Corriveau has dedicated herself to raising money and providing services for children with cancer and their families.

Adams, who allowed his daughter, Eden, to appear in that 2007 fashion show, works alongside Corriveau and currently serves as president of the board of the nonprofit that she started as a teenager.

Corriveau initially imagined hosting only one fashion show, Nellie's Catwalk for Kids, a fundraiser that she organized in honor of her grandmother, who died of cancer. Eden's enthusiasm spurred her to make it an annual event. Eden helped Corriveau plan the second show in 2008 but was too ill to appear in it. She died a few months later.

“I'm sure Eden would be very proud of this,” Adams says. “Nellie's a go-getter. As she got more involved with more families and understood more situations, she wanted to provide more.”

The growth of the organization, which today goes by Nellie's Champions for Kids, and Corriveau's path to adulthood were completely intertwined. “I had to grow up so fast,” she says. “There was so much responsibility. I didn't know what I signed up for. I wouldn't change (it) for the world. It's made me who I am.”

She ran the nonprofit part-time throughout high school and college, where she majored in public relations and minored in nonprofit management. She took the helm as executive director when she graduated. Now married and expecting her first child, her role in the organization will again change to reflect her new stage of life.

“What I always say is, if you are passionate about something, you make it work.”

Later this year, Corriveau will take the title of director emeritus, and the board will hire a new executive director. The change will allow her to work “where I love to focus my energy—connecting with families and our donors and working on the fashion show and our marketing,” she says. “I'm not going anywhere. It's going to look a little different, though.”

More importantly, she sees the change as an opportunity to help the organization grow. Nellie's Champions has raised more than $2.5 million in the last decade, but she says empowering and engaging others in running the organization will allow it to increase its reach.

Growth is critical, because the number of clients keeps increasing, she says. NC4K currently serves 600 families. “I am really proud that we have never had to turn away a family. It's alarming how many new families getting diagnosed that we see just in central Ohio,” she says. “We need to raise more money.”

Change has always been welcome at the organization, Adams says. The unique circumstances surrounding the start of the organization, which has added a gala, a 5K and other

fundraisers, has created a foundation that is like no other, he says.

The nonprofit does not specialize in one type of help, financial or otherwise. Recognizing that a family's income can change rapidly when a child is diagnosed with a serious illness, NC4K tries to be as flexible as it can when hospital social workers make requests, he says. It also regularly acts on input from families and hospital staff.

Recently, the organization began pursuing another avenue for helping families: creating a retreat in Hocking Hills. Families have said they would love a place to vacation that's close to home and doctors but still a getaway, she says.

“We really like the idea of a respite home that's free for families, a place where they could relax and recharge,” she says.

NC4K also prioritizes long-term connections with families. It allows families to remain active regardless of their child's current health. Families with kids who are cancer free, in remission or even deceased are encouraged to stay involved.

“You're never done with cancer. You may have rung the bell at Nationwide Children's Hospital signaling the end of treatment, but you're living with a new normal. We don't want our families to feel alone in that. We want to continue to provide that emotional support,” she says. “We also find that those families provide a lot of value to our new families. They are a sign of hope.”

Melissa Kossler Dutton is a freelance writer.