By Alletah Ganino

In 1986, New London, Connecticut native John Ellis was enjoying a wonderful life.  He’d had a successful career in Major League Baseball playing with the New York Yankees, the Cleveland Indians, and the Texas Rangers.  He was a Topps All Star Rookie in 1971 and had a signature catcher’s mitt sold in retail stores in the mid-1970s. By all accounts, John Ellis was living the life young baseball fans around the world can only dream of.  

As we all know, there’s no such thing as a perfect life.  Ellis and his family were no strangers to tragedy. He lost a brother, a sister, and a sister-in-law to cancer, all in their thirties.  In 1986, at the age of 38, John looked to be in perfect health but was himself diagnosed with the same cancer that took his brother: Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  Given his family history, Ellis had very little hope at the time of surviving his cancer. While being treated by radiation oncologist Dr. Joachim Yahalom at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Ellis made a promise to himself that if he survived, he would dedicate his life to helping cancer patients in his home state of Connecticut.  Ellis successfully beat his cancer and wasted no time in fulfilling his promise, starting the Connecticut Sports Foundation in 1987.

Although the foundation has grown in many ways over the past 32 years, their fundamental mission has not wavered.  Funds are raised with the sole purpose of helping CT cancer patients with everyday living expenses so they can focus on surviving cancer.  The foundation accomplishes this by partnering with hospitals across the state in order to identify and refer patients for financial assistance.  Cancer patients who qualify will receive grants to help with everything from groceries to rent or mortgage payments. When you have to spend weeks at a time in the hospital, holding a job becomes impossible.  Fighting a cancer diagnosis for you or your child is hard enough without having to also worry about losing your home or not being able to put food on the table. CCF helps ease these financial burdens so patients can devote their focus and energy to getting well.

With a mission and a vision in place, Ellis decided to call on his baseball friends to support a charity dinner to raise funds for his new organization, the Connecticut Sports Foundation.  The inaugural dinner was held at the little Groton Motor Inn in 1988.  Baseball legends in attendance included Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Billy Martin and the second year, 1989, Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra.  Each year, the annual Celebrity Dinner proved a successful fundraising event, thanks in large part to support from the New York Yankees. For the past fifteen years, the dinner has been held at Mohegan Sun where funds are raised through corporate sponsorships as well a live auction offering exclusive experiences, and a silent auction featuring incredible memorabilia from sports, movies, music and so much more.  Simply browsing the tables of auction items at the Celebrity Dinner is an experience in itself.  Where else will you see an Avenger’s themed electric guitar signed by Stan Lee next to a limited edition, autographed print of Derek Jeter?  By 2003, the Annual Celebrity Dinner was raising millions of dollars to support cancer patients across the state.

Under the guidance of Ellis’s wife Jane, the organization’s President and Executive Director, the foundation continued to grow and expand in scope.  Jane remembers CCF’s first grant recipients as confirming the purpose and promise of the organization. The very first patient to receive a grant from CCF was a 30 year old man with brain cancer.  He had a wife, a baby, and a terrible diagnosis, but showed incredible courage and positivity. Jane remembers, “He was a source of inspiration and the reason we were moving forward.” The first child to become a CCF grant recipient was a very sick little boy.  John and Jane accompanied his family to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to help them navigate and settle in and find a place to stay at the Ronald McDonald House. That little boy is now a thriving teenager.

In 2017, CCF opened a beautiful new center in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and changed its name to the Connecticut Cancer Foundation (CCF) to better reflect the organization’s mission. Featuring a Hall of Fame exhibit, fine art gallery, and space for speaking events, CCF’s new center signifies the Foundation’s commitment to looking to the future.  On Saturday, March 9 at 1 p.m., CCF hosts photographer Alen MacWeeney for “An Afternoon with the Artist.”  Photography of Alen MacWeeney is on view now through March 26th.  This sale exhibition is curated by Marsha Malinowski of Malinowski & Associates.  In April, CCF debuts the speakers series “Eat Well, Live Well: Nutrition & Wellness”  presented by Clinical Nutritionist Valerie Koif. Register to enjoy monthly programs full of practical tips, great recipes, and the satisfaction of supporting not only your personal health but the efforts of the Connecticut Cancer Foundation.  Also upcoming: Hammond Isles Wealth Advisors presents “The American Dream Experience” on April 5 & 6.

CCF’s center in Old Saybrook offers donors naming opportunities through their capital campaign.  The “Buy a Brick” campaign is a wonderful way to support CT cancer patients to honor or remember a loved one affected by cancer with a personalized brick.

CCF works year round to fundraise throughout the state in a variety of ways.  Statewide Cycle Against Cancer events are held in partner gyms with opportunities for new gyms to join in each year. Teams sign up to raise funds and “spin” for four hours in a fun, party-like atmosphere.  CCF also partners with police departments across Connecticut for No Shave November, a month-long effort to raise cancer awareness and funds. In 2018, over 40 police departments raised more than $100,000 for cancer patients. Tri-State Tournaments teams up with CCF to manage a fall fishing tournament benefit called the Fall Frenzy.

Jane Ellis credits CCF’s dedicated Board of Directors, along with many sponsors and donors over the past 32 years, for the organization’s continued success and growth.  The support from businesses throughout Connecticut helps to further CCF’s mission and allows them to assist more cancer patients each year. Jane acknowledges that the foundation would not be where it is today without the generosity and loyal partnership of the Mohegan Tribe and Mohegan Sun.  Invaluable support from Pasta Vita, Starion Energy, and far too many others to list have provided the core funding on which CCF relies. CCF is the beneficiary of Enterprise Builder’s Golf Tournament with funds raised to benefit Connecticut Veterans battling cancer.

To date, CCF has helped more than 7,000 Connecticut cancer patients with over $6 million dollars in grants.  Since 1992, CCF has donated more than $2 million to cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center under the direction of Dr. Joachim Yahalom, the same doctor who saved John Ellis’s life.  After more than thirty years, the Connecticut Cancer Foundation is more focused than ever on continuing its’ mission far into the future as Jane notes, “The mission and purpose of the foundation are more relevant today than ever before as the cost of living continues to increase and CT cancer patients need us now more than ever.”   

Article writen for Ink Publications, March 2019 Edition. For the full publication, please click here.