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Connecticut Cancer Foundation (CCF) CEO and President Jane Ellis has spent more than three decades helping those with cancer cope with everyday expenses, honoring and growing the commitment made by her husband John Ellis. The foundation, first established as the Connecting Sports Foundation, operates out of its newly outfitted Old Saybrook headquarters, complete with a Hall of Fame. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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More than 30 years ago, John Ellis, an entrepreneur and former Major League Baseball player, made a promise: If he beat cancer, he would devote his life to helping others facing cancer diagnoses. He may not have realized that his wife, Jane Ellis, would devote herself to fulfilling that promise, too. But she has.
For 31 years, Jane has run the Connecticut Cancer Foundation (CCF), formerly the Connecticut Sports Foundation, as its CEO and president, raising funds to help those facing a cancer diagnosis with seemingly small gestures: money to help pay the rent or the mortgage, to buy groceries, or pay the heating bill.
CCF’s grants average around $600 with a maximum set by its Board of Directors at $2,000, but those relatively small amounts can make a difference to a family struggling to pay the bills. And as the foundation grows, it is expanding its ability to provide larger sums to those with greater need.
A year ago, the CCF made a major move to establish itself in Old Saybrook, moving from its most recent location—cramped quarters at the Old Saybrook train station—to a new building at 15 North Main Street, near the intersection with the Boston Post Road. At around 5,000 square feet, the building has a Hall of Fame, honoring sports stars who have headlined the annual celebrity dinner and auction, the CCF’s major fundraising organ. The vast majority of these are baseball players, starting with Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Billy Martin at the first dinner in 1988.
“That was our first dinner and was hugely successful,” Jane says. “We said, ‘We’re onto something.’ And then the next year came and we invited Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra. Yogi came many, many times to our dinners over the years.
“That’s how the signature event began and shockingly enough continues 32 years later—I’m in the midst of planning our 32nd dinner for February at Mohegan Sun,” she continues. “Fortunately, we found an overwhelmingly generous partner in Mohegan Sun who, without their support, really the dinner wouldn’t be financially viable as a fundraiser.”
The casino, which has partnered with the CCF for 15 years now, provides the space and dinner free of charge. On more than one occasion, the dinner and auction have raised more than a million dollars.
Thus far, “we’re closing in on almost $6 million to cancer patients and almost $2 million to cancer research,” Jane says.
The new building also has an art gallery, which, at press time, was hosting the work of Connecticut impressionist William Ternes. All work in the gallery is for sale and is another way the foundation raises money.
“Every inch of this building was built with the thought of how can we raise funds for cancer patients,” Jane says.
The art gallery, which doubles as an event space, recently hosted a talk by retired ESPN sportscaster Chris Berman and former ESPN president George Bodenheimer. The event netted the foundation $10,000.
The building’s kitchen will also serve as a fundraising vehicle.
“We’re going to invite celebrity chefs in,” Jane says. “We’ve already been talking to someone about coming in and doing some cooking classes as fundraisers.”
The company, Jovial Foods, Inc., in Stonington, will also offer an item for the Celebrity Dinner auction: a combination cooking class/dinner in which participants eat what they cook.
There are naming rights—the Hall of Fame is named after one of John’s closest friends, Vincent Genovese, and another opportunity awaits in the art gallery—and the bricks that make up the walkway and patio outside can be dedicated to a loved one, part of the capital campaign for the building.
All this started when Jane and John were engaged to be married and John was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His family had a history with cancer: He had lost a sister, brother, and sister-in-law to lymphoma.
John “watched his siblings go through financial devastation because of this diagnosis, which happens to a lot of cancer patients,” Jane says. “And so when he was diagnosed and successfully treated, he thought, ‘How can we help other cancer patients?’ We decided the most help and the largest void out there was for helping with everyday living expenses…particularly at that time there was nowhere to go for help with everyday living expenses.”
Having played major league baseball for 13 years—four as a catcher for the New York Yankees—John reached out to his friends and colleagues in the sports community for help, and the Connecticut Sports Foundation was born.
While the foundation now has a new name, it retains its ties to sports. It has branched out into spinning fundraisers, whereby fitness enthusiasts ride stationary bicycles to raise money for cancer patients in need. Through CCF’s ambassador program, each event primarily raises money for a pediatric cancer patient selected by the organization. A percentage of the funds raised is given to that patient’s family; the remainder is placed in the general fund to be distributed as regular grants. A fishing tournament and a dinner dance have also raised funds for ambassadors, with the dinner dance netting $15,000 for a family in need.
Recipients are referred to the organization by oncology social workers at hospitals around the state.
“One [woman] was homeless and battling cancer,” Jane recalls. “They fortunately found an apartment within the time we were working with [them]. How do you—you have three children, you’re a single mom—how do you get back on your feet? So we took it upon ourselves to reach out to some furniture companies and get them furniture for the apartment on top of the grant.
“When we can go the extra mile, we will, or if the family needs the extra,” she continues. “That was the first time that I had furniture companies go in and they furnished the whole apartment: window treatments, dishes. They didn’t have anything…They, at the time, were sleeping on the floor on old mattresses. They had nothing else. And this child was expected to battle cancer. So we got them beds, we got them everything so she could have hope. She found a job, Junior was treated successfully, graduated high school, was going on to college.
“I look at the people that we help and I have no idea how they make it. It’s such an extreme battle that they’re up against,” she says. “One should never have to think about losing their home while they’re battling cancer.”
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