Her daughter had just started cancer treatments, but Esther Lee says she was still reeling from the news as she walked through the hospital corridors when she met Stacey Sutter.
“I was trying to process everything and suddenly I run into Stacey and she greets me with a warm hug,” Lee says.
From that first embrace, Lee realized Sutter and the pediatric cancer nonprofit organization Cal’s All-Star Angels Foundation was something truly special.
“Stacey and Cal’s Angels are a little unique in that they continued to reach out to me,” Lee says. “Those first few months of cancer treatments you are just in survival mode. Stacey and Cal’s Angels continued to reach into my world and see what we needed.”
While she serves as the president of Cal’s Angels, Sutter isn’t just processing paperwork. From the monthly pizza parties at the oncology ward at Lurie’s Children Hospital in Chicago to meeting with families like the Lees, Sutter is there to lend a shoulder of support, a warm hug and share at a time when many families feel incredible loneliness.
“When you are the parent of a child with cancer, I can say with confidence, it feels very lonely, very scary,” Sutter says. “I want parents to know they are not alone.”
Sutter’s stepson Cal was diagnosed with cancer in 2005. During his 14-month battle with cancer and treatments, Sutter says Cal never stopped caring about others, asking about the friends he met along his journey, always showing concern for others. It was during one of his hospital stays that Cal’s father, Tom, met another family struggling with day-to-day life. Stacey Sutter says it became the “ah-ha moment” when Stacey and Tom realized something more was needed.
“We wanted to give back,” Stacey Sutter says. “We didn’t know what that would look like, or how, at the time.”
Cal lost his battle with cancer, but his legacy of caring for others remains through Cal’s Angels. The multi-faceted foundation supports families, provides wishes to pediatric cancer patients and promotes education about pediatric cancers, while advocating for research into treatments.
Lee says when her daughter Ava’s cancer relapsed, Cal’s Angels was there offering a wish: a family trip to Disney World. It would be the last vacation the family would have together before Ava died.
“It was really special because it meant we were given quality time,” Lee says. “To really have those quality memories with our child, because that’s what we’re left with, having those memories to cherish.”
But Cal’s Angels goes beyond simply granting memorable experiences. Sutter has picked up her phone in the middle of the night to talk with a parent facing the nightmare of losing a child, and she has shared her experiences.
“When a child passes, really a piece of Stacey’s heart goes with,” Lee says. “I think because she has been there and had a child with cancer, she can share in the cancer journey. There’s an understanding.”
For Stacey Sutter, her role with the foundation is an honor. It is her happiness and yet she is pained to know she wouldn’t be there if Cal had never been sick. She admits it is hard to understand, but knowing the difference Cal’s Angels makes in the lives of others motivates her.
“We, as adults, have a responsibility to be the voice for our children,” Stacey Sutter says. “We’re all in this together.”
Stacey Sutter and her team, along with support from its board of directors, have worked hard to build a strong reputation for Cal’s Angels. This includes teaming up with other businesses. John Rukel of AJR Group in St. Charles saw an opportunity for his business to support Cal’s Angels with donations of Pillows of Health for pediatric cancer patients to use while they undergo treatments.
“I’ve had the privilege to go with Stacey to deliver the pillows at Lurie’s [Children’s Hospital] and to see the smiles on the kids’ faces, it is such a great honor,” Rukel says. “[Stacey] connects with people and she’s so sincere, so understanding.”
And for families like Lee’s, the connection to Cal’s Angels doesn’t end with the passing of a child or the end of cancer treatments. Through the foundation, parents have connected to share their bereavement and to be a part of the continued efforts to educate, advocate and help the next family in need.
“Stacey is amazing. She remembers names, birthdays, siblings,” Lee says. “That’s her joy, to be with families.”