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Jeri Wilson: “Don’t hesitate to ask for help”

One of our board members has a child who was treated for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in 1992. We also have a PCRF Ambassador turning 22 and graduating from college next year who was diagnosed 10 years after the first patient. For that first patient, common protocol included massive radiation that killed lots more than just […]

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One of our board members has a child who was treated for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in 1992. We also have a PCRF Ambassador turning 22 and graduating from college next year who was diagnosed 10 years after the first patient. For that first patient, common protocol included massive radiation that killed lots more than just cancer. Ten years later, the treatment the second patient received was much less invasive.

The board member’s child is now 29 years old. She and her mom were seated next to the second patient recently and learned that the two had the same cancer. The college-bound student broke down in tears when she saw the profound effects the older patient experienced as a result of her therapy. The 29-year- old has significant cognitive and physical challenges and is reliant on her parents to do most everything for her due to the radiation she was given at such a young age.

The research we support changes the way patients are treated and provides families a lot more hope that recovery means the whole person will survive and thrive.


Aspart of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeri Wilson, Executive Director of the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation (PCRF).

Jeri became executive director of the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation nine years ago, driving efforts to find cures for childhood cancer so all kids can enjoy their childhoods, cancer-free. This pioneering organization identifies and funds leading-edge research that demonstrates the best hope for eliminating pediatric cancer.

Jeri leads all areas of the Foundation’s strategy and operations, including fundraising, community and stakeholder development and advocacy. This role fuses her 25 years of non-profit management and gift planning experience with a personal and palpable commitment that is a testament to families whose lives are dramatically altered by a child’s cancer diagnosis. Working for notable trailblazers, such as California’s CHOC Children’s and MemorialCare, as well as the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and Alzheimer’s Association, has given Jeri more than invaluable experience; being part of such vibrant can-do cultures has shown her the power of what can be accomplished when you meld determination, motivation and execution. Not surprisingly, her relentless quest as a cure-seeker has become synonymous with her organization’s rallying cry: Never Quit!

Jeri joined the Board of the Partnership for Philanthropic Planning Orange County in 2007 and was an active member of the Southern California Round Table Council. She is a current member of Cancer and Blood Disease Institute Leadership Council of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Some of her volunteering included CHOC Children’s Hospital, lending support via its Spiritual Care offering and raising funds for Hannah’s Gifts, which provides meals to oncology families during their hospital stay.

Jeri attended the University of Kansas and holds the designation of Certified Specialist in Planned Giving (2007) from the American Institute of Philanthropic Studies at Cal State Long Beach.

Jeri resides in Hermosa Beach, California and has two adult daughters, both of whom are following in her footsteps in volunteering for not-for-profits.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Jeri! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Mycareer extends a long line of community service and philanthropic work that was modeled for me by my parents and grandparents. Growing up in Chicago, my parents and grandparents were very involved in the community — and these experiences made a strong and very positive impression on me.

Some of my earliest memories are of standing with my grandfather flipping pancakes or selling rolls of candy for the Kiwanis of Chicago. Although I did not know I was doing philanthropy through volunteering, I always remember people thanking us as we served their families and that felt really good.

Later on, I had a hugely gratifying high school job teaching kids with Downs Syndrome how to swim at the local YMCA. I still remember my first student, Eugene. He was older than me and very awkward out of the water. But the minute he was in the water it was a new world. Through my experiences with Eugene and others I realized that helping people and brightening their lives was going to be an important part of my career.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

One of the most transformative experiences of my recent career was meeting a young man named Ryan. Instead of being in his first year of pharmacy school, he was in Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago being treated for Ewings Sarcoma.

I was in Chicago for a fundraising event with Jon Lester of the Chicago Cubs, who had his own bout with pediatric cancer and was our champion. I was struck instantly by the coincidence that both Ryan and Jon wore the number thirty-one on their baseball jerseys. It turns out Ryan was a huge fan and a pitcher himself.

When he was well enough, I took Ryan to Wrigley Field to meet Jon and talk about baseball. He didn’t stop talking about the experience for months. I kept asking the Cubs what else we could do for Ryan and then one day they called and invited him to throw out the first pitch at Wrigley. Ryan and his family quickly accepted and the date was set in early August. Ryan was declining rapidly, but he was not going to miss this! My co-worker and I flew in and out of Chicago on the same day so we could watch Ryan throw out the first pitch on national television. A few short months later, Ryan lost his battle to Ewings Sarcoma. But that day and that family left an indelible mark on me. Each day I remind myself of the promise I made — to him and to myself — to keep on keeping on for Ryan.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was at the Komen Foundation, I was charged with giving a welcome speech the opening night before the race. Of course, you stand up and thank all of the sponsors and hope to pronounce their names correctly. Now I am not a shy person, but my mom was in the audience and although she was my biggest supporter, I did not want to disappoint her. I ended up pronouncing the name of our title sponsor wrong …. very wrong. Touche, as in the old Deloitte and Touche, came out “touchy!” This was received with a big laugh — and an even bigger eye roll — from my boss. Since that time, I will not go into an interview, presentation or speaking opportunity without reading, writing and saying out loud the names of the people, companies, or brands that are involved.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

The Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation is leading the effort to fund promising research that could offer hope for eliminating pediatric cancer. For close to 40 years we have been pioneers, driven by the vision that every child deserves to grow up cancer-free.

The work of our organization, and others aligned with our mission, fills a powerful void that most Americans do not realize exists. Cancer is the leading cause of disease-related death for children under 19 years of age, but pediatric cancer receives less than 4 percent of the Federal government’s research budget. The rest of the funding comes from organizations like ours. We are collectively having a huge impact. Over the last 39 years, survival rates for childhood cancer have risen from 10 percent to over 80 percent.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One of the things I’m proudest of is the way our research has helped to improve the quality of life for pediatric cancer survivors. Few people outside of the cancer community understand the significance of this — but this is huge. Often, cancer treatments can save a child, but devastate the lives of the child and their family.

This story tells it tall:

One of our board members has a child who was treated for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in 1992. We also have a PCRF Ambassador turning 22 and graduating from college next year who was diagnosed 10 years after the first patient. For that first patient, common protocol included massive radiation that killed lots more than just cancer. Ten years later, the treatment the second patient received was much less invasive.

The board member’s child is now 29 years old. She and her mom were seated next to the second patient recently and learned that the two had the same cancer. The college-bound student broke down in tears when she saw the profound effects the older patient experienced as a result of her therapy. The 29-year- old has significant cognitive and physical challenges and is reliant on her parents to do most everything for her due to the radiation she was given at such a young age.

The research we support changes the way patients are treated and provides families a lot more hope that recovery means the whole person will survive and thrive.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. The single most important thing we as a society must do to eliminate childhood cancer is to convince the Federal government to allocate more money for pediatric cancer research. NIH funding needs to be increased and we also need to improve health insurance coverage for pediatric cancer survivors. Pediatric cancer isn’t just one disease, it’s dozens. So we can’t just treat it like a single disease when It comes to funding. Each pediatric disease will need just as many smart scientists looking for cures as we have today for each adult cancer. Of course, this is even more important today as our society lives through a pandemic and envisions life after COVID-19. The individuals and organizations we relied upon for donations to propel research are all suffering financial strains due to the pandemic. This will make government funding all the more critical — and that much more challenging to obtain.
  2. That leads to the second objective — engaging the public in lobbying government for this funding. This will not happen on its own — we need to create a collaborative environment where like-minded organizations come together to conceive and execute a well-orchestrated effort that engages the public to advocate for greater government support.
  3. While this is happening, I’d like to see our society provide more opportunities for pediatric cancer survivors. I’m referring specifically to jobs, but also resources for educating the public about the specific challenges survivors face. I’d like to make the world a bit kinder and gentler for them to be able to find their own place as productive, empathetic individuals.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership as providing my team the inspiration, motivation and tools to successfully realize our vision. I think a high-performing team that enjoys working together inside a positive and collaborative culture is the result of a leader who is doing something right. That doesn’t mean things will always go perfectly. Strong leaders realize when something isn’t working, accept responsibility, and make the needed fixes, so the team can get to the finish line and feel good about what has been accomplished together.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Pediatric cancer research is a marathon not a sprint.

I have been raising funds for cancer for over twenty years. The deeper I got into my job, the more I learned just how underfunded pediatric cancer research is. We’ve made great strides in the last 40 years since not-for-profits started carrying the water of funding this research, but we have a long way to go. We need to be just as relentless in our quest because we’re still in the early mileage of this marathon and patients are relying on us. Every day counts and each dollar we raise makes a difference.

2. Don’t be afraid of change or making adaptations to fit the current marketplace.

I took over the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation (PCRF) in its 29th year. They had been doing business pretty much the same way since their founding and had definitely moved the needle on research. I envisioned a different path that meant switching to a development model. My ideas met with some early resistance, but ultimately, I was able to gain support for changing how we operate — and that proved beneficial to our bottom line. Of course, COVID-19 will force all of us to reimagine how we work, and how we fundraise, and I look at this as a huge opportunity.

3. Let yourself experience the highs and the lows…and when you can, celebrate the victories.

Working with families in crisis is tough and often a little scary. Research is saving more lives but not everyone makes it. When we do lose a patient, there are days when you feel like a failure and that you have let down the people who depend on you. It took me a while to allow myself to fully experience these moments, but I have come to realize that it is these moments that fuel the fighter in us, that propels our strength and makes it so we will never give up. I acknowledge that it is just as critical to celebrate each and every success. The research PCRF funds is producing results. We are saving kids’ lives. Very often, that means we are making it possible for many families to grow stronger together. All of that is worth celebrating.

4. Everyone — no matter their role — has something valuable to offer.

We may take direction from a boss or board, but leadership can be a whole other story. Enlarge your circle of influence to obtain the widest possible perspective and be open to where your best learning and mentors can come from. When I worked at a local children’s hospital I became friends with the retired volunteers. Every Tuesday and Thursday we would spend an hour in the cafeteria talking. They would point out not only wonderful nuggets of lives well lived, but how important it was to keep the end in sight for these kids battling cancer. What I learned from them had a profound impact on my work and ultimately on how we served these kids and their families.

5. Don’t hesitate to ask for help.

Throughout our careers, help comes in many forms. Maybe it is a problem that needs solving or an introduction that is needed. As a professional fundraiser, I often think about help as a financial request. I never want to be too hesitant or too desperate; to appear too needy or too proud. I realized the point was to never be afraid to make the ask. Years ago when I was working for the Alzheimer’s Association I overheard a researcher talking to donors at the end of his speech. He said, “If this message resonates with you personally, the next time you’re on the golf course, walking with a friend or sharing a meal, tell them about what we’re doing.” His point was to always be ready to ask for what you need — and to do so in the purest, most genuine terms.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If I could inspire a movement, it would be founded on the principle that Unity = A Stronger Pediatric Cancer Community.

I believe these extraordinary times require not-for-profits in the pediatric cancer world to come together like never before and present a unified voice to policy-makers. This will enable us to coalesce and advocate for the funding and policy changes that are paramount for pediatric cancer patients and their families.

One of the challenges is that the pediatric cancer community is very splintered. There are many types of childhood cancers and many different groups to support these different types; some groups are national and others local; some serve to advance the work of specific researchers or patients in specific geographies. I’d like to see us come together as a Pediatric Cancer Collaborative and harness our voice and unique strengths to serve maximum advantage.

Chief among the roles I’d love to see this Collaborative tackle is educating politicians on the strong impact their votes have on the survival of children with cancer. This would steer them towards the goal of allocating more NIH funding to pediatric cancer research, but also improving the care these patients receive. Legislative action has the potential to change the outlook for children with cancer for generations to come. For example, the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, changed the landscape for childhood cancer survivors by eliminating some of their biggest barriers to care as they become young adults: no more lifetime caps; no more pre-existing condition exclusions; and the ability to stay on their parents’ insurance longer.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Remember to spend quality time with your family.”

All of my childhood memories are filled with joy and include my closest relatives. This includes summers canoeing and waterskiing in Wisconsin and Minnesota; Thanksgiving and Christmas with grandparents who loved us unconditionally; and many more. I embraced this “tribe” and carry them with me in my heart every day. Given the choice, I have always chosen one last visit with a loved one. As my “tribe” has shifted and I seem to be one of the elders, I am blessed to see the importance of family in my children.

Our oncology families know this all too well. When that time does come to say goodbye, I remember a line from Winnie the Pooh when he is talking to Piglet. “If ever there comes a time when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart and I will stay there forever.” This may not be a powerful business quote, but I do keep these loved ones in my heart and draw on the humanity of this life lesson as a beacon in my work every day.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

I would like to meet Laurene Powell Jobs and Reed Jobs of the Emerson Collective, both to learn more about their approach to social change and also to see if we could encourage them to expand their work to include pediatric cancer research.

If I could meet any historical figure, I would like to meet Mary Lasker, one of the most effective activists who significantly increased public funding for medical research. Her early efforts emphasized developing public support to advance basic research on cancer so I think of her as our fairy godmother. She persuaded the American public that the national investment in medical research would yield invaluable benefits for human health. Her simple warning was, “If you think research is expensive, try disease!” The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation she and her husband founded is 77-years strong and its message is just as vital today.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I enjoy hearing from people and engaging with them on social media. You can follow our organization and reach me at:

Facebook.com/PCRFKIDS

Instagram and Twitter: @pcrf_kids

YouTube: Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation

#PCRFKids

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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