Cheryl Colleluori and son, Nick Colleluori.
By Pete Kennedy
On a February day in 2006, Cheryl Colleluori was at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, waiting outside an operating room with her son Nick.
A standout lacrosse player at Hofstra University, Nick had been diagnosed months earlier with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer that affects the lymphatic system. Inside the OR, a medical team was preparing to install a port in his neck in preparation for a stem cell transplant. Out in the hallway, Nick asked his mother if she had a pen and paper.
“He’s on a gurney, waiting to go in. I just figured he was doodling,” Colleluori said. “He turned around and said, ‘Here’s the logo for the foundation I want to create. Mom, I got this disease for a reason.’ ”
Nick spent the next six months — in and out of the hospital — laying the groundwork for the HEADstrong Foundation. He defined its mission, to provide relief and comfort for people and families enduring cancer treatments, and its short-term and long-term goals. He even picked a color palette, with a striking lime-green hue that matched his signature shoelaces.
Nick lost his fight with cancer that November. With his last breaths, he asked his parents and brothers to promise that others following in his footsteps would benefit from his life.
As president of the foundation, Colleluori, 62, has helped to raise nearly $17 million since its incorporation in 2007. As a result, HEADstrong has provided financial, residential and emotional support to more than 17,800 patients and families.
The foundation has grown immensely over the years, which Colleluori credits to support from community partners, individuals and lacrosse programs at professional, collegiate, high school and youth levels.
“We have become the philanthropic arm of the game of lacrosse,” Colleluori said. “It has been an incredible privilege.”
HEADstrong’s Lime Light Gala fundraiser in June featured an introduction by Grammy winner Lisa Loeb and was emceed by Fox29’s Thomas Drayton.
A native of Ridley Township, Colleluori and her husband of 41 years, Pasquale, raised four sons there — Pasquale Jr., Daniel, Nick and Michael. She remembers her third son as “a ball of energy” who rode a two-wheeler at 3 years old and excelled in every sport he played. He was captain of the football and lacrosse teams at Ridley High School, yet Colleluori said Nick was humble, a “pleaser” who made life easier for her.
Colleluori’s executive experience has proved invaluable at the foundation. She spent 25 years at Staples in the commercial furniture division and holds a degree in organizational leadership from Cabrini University. For six years after Nick’s death, she scaled up the nonprofit while also working full time to help lift the family out of medical debt.
“The illness really crippled us financially,” Colleluori said.
HEADstrong provides direct service to those affected by cancer, including financial assistance to those who are struggling to pay for care. It serves meals and offers entertainment options for patients in hospitals, and offers free lodging to those who would otherwise have to travel long distances to get treatment.
In 2017, HEADstrong opened Nick’s House, a 5,000-square-foot home in Swarthmore that accommodates up to seven families of patients who are receiving cancer treatment in Philadelphia. Many people and businesses donated time, money and materials to make the house possible.
“We have a 6-year-old at Nick’s House right now. She was diagnosed with cancer at 8 months old. She’s lost an eye. She is in a wheelchair. This shouldn’t be. This should not be,” Colleluori said, fighting tears. “I get really close to all the families. I understand as a parent what it’s like to have this worry. ‘Will my child live for another birthday? Will my child be able to go to school?’”
Colleluori hopes to open four more Nick’s Houses over the next 10 years, situated near renowned medical centers like Memorial Sloane Kettering in Manhattan.
She is undeterred by the challenges that inevitably come with such ambitious plans.
“I compare everything to losing Nick, and it’s easy,” she said. “I’m hoping he’s proud of what we’ve accomplished in his name.”
To learn more or donate to the HEADstrong Foundation, visit www.headstrong.org.