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By Jen DeGregorio

At the end of last summer, I made one of those decisions that ended up impacting my life in ways I never could have predicted.

For years, I had been freelancing as a marketing and event-planning professional for local nonprofits. I loved the freedom I had with my schedule. I could work from anywhere and took great pleasure in being home for my son the second he walked in the door after school. But as my only child got older and started spending more and more time with his friends, it dawned on me how isolated I had become. I was becoming increasingly moody and depressed but didn’t fully understand what was happening to me.

Then one day I received a voicemail from Tammi Carr. The ChadTough Foundation was looking for a Director of Communications, and my name had come up. Tammi was wondering if I would be interested.

I met Tammi in 2013, the year before Chad was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Tammi was impressive right off the bat, and I admired her tenacity. Whatever intimidation I initially felt upon meeting the beautiful, feisty daughter-in-law of Lloyd Carr was quickly put at ease. She was down to earth, and you never had to wonder what she was thinking – she had no problem telling you what was on her mind. Her passion for helping kids was just as strong then as it is today, and when Chad got sick, she showed perseverance in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

Having worked in the nonprofit world for years, I was blown away by the immediate strength and growth of ChadTough. Tammi shared Chad’s story in a way that touched people intimately from all over the world. I remember sharing the Facebook page with my mom and watching her sob with heartbreak for a little boy she had never met. I realized I had never personally known anyone who lost a child so young to such a horrific disease. As I read the family’s posts on social media, I just wanted to do something, anything, to ease their pain – but felt so helpless. I remember hastily knitting the family dog, Tootie, an orange sweater – just so I could do SOMETHING.

People around the world were having the same reaction. And while the Carr family began to come to terms with the idea of losing Chad, they were also learning that this disease had been around for a very long time with very little done to understand it and to find a cure. It began to be clear to them that they had a new life mission. They absolutely could not let future families endure their horror because not enough research was being done to find a cure. Within months of Chad’s diagnosis, Tammi, Jason, and Lloyd knew that they must set up a foundation to fund research for a cure.

So, when I received the call from Tammi about joining the ChadTough team, I was honored to say the least. Then I did what many women do. I questioned whether or not I was good enough. She told me the team was made up of her husband, Jason Carr, and six other women.

Is there anything more intimidating than starting a new job with a group of women who have all been working together for some time? How would I change the dynamic? What if I didn’t fit in? What if I’m the only one who doesn’t watch football? (Yes, that was actually one of my thoughts.) In spite of that annoying voice in my head, I agreed to give it a shot.

What I came to discover was a team of smart, passionate, hardworking women who were dedicated to creating real change for the future of children with brain cancer.

Ann Friedholm – Executive Director
Ann was the first team member I met, and I could tell right off the bat that she was tough, fearless, and competitive. These are traits that would normally scare the crap out of me, but there was such an aura of kindness around her that made her strength unthreatening and admirable.

Ann and Tammi have kids close in age and met through their mutual support of the Foundation for Saline Area Schools (FSAS). With Ann’s business strategy background and Tammi’s fundraising background, they began working together to assist the foundation’s board and strategize on new fundraising approaches.

One thing most of us have in common is the heartbreaking memory of hearing about Chad’s diagnosis for the first time. That day, Ann had expected to see Tammi at a FSAS luncheon. Upon arrival, she heard that the family was at the hospital, and Chad had a suspected broken nose after taking a fall. The next morning, she received a text from a mutual friend explaining that Chad had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and was not expected to recover. Ann stared at that text for a long time and thought, “There is no way Tammi will let that happen. She’ll find a way out of this.”

As the Carrs moved forward with their worldwide call for prayers and their desperate fight to save their son, Ann’s heart broke in two. With four young children of her own, she felt compelled to find ways to help the family in any way possible.

In the beginning, Ann jumped in wherever she could. “What could help make their lives easier?” she kept asking herself. The family was consumed with saving their son, and as the days passed, it became more and more apparent that Chad would not beat this monster called DIPG. She would check in with Tammi every now and then, letting her know she was ready and willing to help in any way possible.

That is when Ann first became involved with what would become The ChadTough Foundation. The way in which she could help this family became clear to both the Carrs and to Ann. She could leverage her strategic, branding, and organizational skills to help them establish the fundamentals for the foundation. And when it became obvious that the foundation needed to hire an Executive Director, Tammi would not relent until Ann finally agreed to take on this role, her first in the nonprofit sector. Ann agreed to give the foundation “a year” to get it off the ground. Four years later, Ann continues to lead what has become one of the most influential charities in the world of DIPG research.

Today, Ann leads the day-to-day operations of the foundation while also developing long-term strategies and plans to drive growth for years to come. She is able to leverage much of what she has learned as a consultant and from her tenure in brand management for Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company. Prior to her time at Nestlé, Ann learned exceptional organizational development skills during her time as a manufacturing leader for Procter & Gamble. She earned her MBA, with an emphasis on marketing and strategy, from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, and holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from Cornell University.

Ann lives in Saline with her husband, Jon, and her children, TJ, Allison, Ryan, and Eric. She juggles her time between the foundation, her family, her children’s activities, and her passion for YMCA Storer Camps (for which she serves as an advisory board member).

Amy Lepore – Director of Events
The first thing I noticed about Amy is how very much we had in common. It was obvious right away that she wore many hats in the organization and is incredibly enthusiastic about jumping in and learning new things that might help us grow.

After college, Amy worked in the publishing field as an editor and project manager. She continued to freelance in those roles while she raised her family and moved around the country for her husband’s job. When the family settled in Saline, Amy began to think about her next career move. Her kids were getting older, and she wanted to do something meaningful, perhaps in the nonprofit world.

As a mother of young children, the news of Chad Carr’s diagnosis hit Amy hard. The realization that this could happen to anyone, no matter how young and healthy your children are, made her realize how blessed her family was. Like many families who knew the Carrs, emotions were mixed with grief, sorrow, and even guilt that their own children were the lucky ones.

Amy knew Ann Friedholm from working together on the PTA at their children’s elementary school. She began volunteering for the RunTough for ChadTough event for a few years, and when she was approached by Tammi and Ann for the Director of Fundraising role, Amy did not hesitate.

“The position was originally called Director of Fundraising because I mainly worked with our third-party fundraisers and helped out at our events,” Amy explained. “Then over time – and to lighten Ann’s load – it just made sense to adjust my role and title to Director of Events.”

Amy lives in Saline with her husband, Greg, and their two children, Gianna and Noah.

Elizabeth Guzik – Director of Special Projects
Like many Michigan football fans, Elizabeth remembers the cheers that took over the Big House when Chad came onto the field to serve as the Wolverine’s honorary captain against Minnesota in 2014. Her heart sank, hearing his story and knowing the outcome would be dire.

At the time, Elizabeth served as the Director of Philanthropy for Victory Automotive Group. Through her work, she was introduced to Tammi and The ChadTough Foundation. More and more, she began volunteering her time and talents to ChadTough.

For the last year, Elizabeth has graciously taken on any projects that come her way, primarily focusing on helping the rest of the team with work overload. She brings a fresh, youthful perspective to each and every task the team encounters.

“It is rare that you find a work environment where there is so much compassion, strong will, and support from around the country rallying together to help find a cure,” she said. “Knowing the incredible impact that families, DIPG angels, donors, and volunteers are making makes me proud to be #ChadTough.”

Elizabeth lives in Ann Arbor with her fiancé, Eric Cappo, and her two dogs, Whiskey and Kona.

Kristina Behncke – Director of Stewardship
When I joined ChadTough, I wondered how working so closely with children who were fighting for their lives had affected the women on the team. Had they become hardened or numb to the brutality of pediatric cancer? Upon first meeting Kristina, my question was answered. Her knowledge and love for each and every child that she’d learned about who was battling cancer was just as sorrowful as the day she had first come on board.

Before joining ChadTough, Kristina was an attorney in the business world for many years. While raising her children, she began volunteering at various nonprofits and took on the role of Director of Stewardship two years ago. She met Chad Carr when he was just a healthy little 2-year-old. She recalls him running around his backyard with his two older brothers, sporting his infectious laugh. His life and death had a profound influence on what she wanted to do with her work going forward.

“I am so grateful to Tammi and Jason Carr for giving me the opportunity to work for The ChadTough Foundation. Over the past two years, I have met amazing people who believe in our mission and want to find a cure for pediatric brain cancer. Our Executive Director, Ann Friedholm, has been a mentor and leader like no other. I am thankful for her and our wonderful staff for inspiring me each day,” said Kristina. “I feel a sense of connection with the people I work with because we are all there for one reason – to give hope to families who need it and to find a cure for a terrible disease.”

Kristina has met so many families who have lost their precious children. She feels strongly that, because of these families, donors, and volunteers, The ChadTough Foundation is making a positive difference in this world that will lead to a cure. She lives in Saline with her husband, Andrew, and their two kids, Anna and Ian.

Lesley Hundley – Director of Operations
The first thing I noticed about Lesley is her gigantic smile. She made me feel welcome right away with her quick wit and quiet sense of humor.

Lesley met the Carr family while helping plan the neighborhood ChadTough Garage Sale Rally in Saline. The foundation was in its infancy, and Chad was bravely battling DIPG. Lesley watched as the Carr family fought hard to get Chad the best treatments available, raise awareness, and at the same time try to create wonderful memories for their family. Lesley was inspired by her community, which had rallied around Chad, and knew she wanted to be more involved.

Lesley had many years of experience working at the Office of University Development at the University of Michigan, and felt a calling to volunteer her expertise in project management, donor database systems, and financial management during the birth of the foundation. Lesley transitioned from a volunteer to the Director of Operations once the foundation became an official charity.

She’s been amazed to witness the foundation’s growth over the past five years and could not be more proud to work with the incredible ChadTough staff, amazing donors, researchers, volunteers, and families in the fight against DIPG.

Lesley lives in Saline with her husband, Jeff, and their two kids, Luke and Lauren.

Monica Brancheau – Director of Strategic Partnerships
There is something that happens around our office called “Chadwinks.” We refer to this whenever something amazing happens, as it often does at ChadTough.

The day Chad was diagnosed with DIPG, I was sitting in my office where I worked for Big Brothers Big Sisters. Monica worked there, too, and was sitting in the neighboring office, divided only by a paper-thin wall. We often talked to each other through that wall, and that is how I learned of Chad’s diagnosis. Monica and I whispered through that wall in shock and horror over this terrifying news.

Fast forward seven years, and Monica was offered the position to come work for The ChadTough Foundation. A cancer survivor herself, she had been inspired over the years by the incredible work the family managed to accomplish in the face of tragedy. When she met Tammi for lunch, she felt it was nothing short of serendipity when she was offered the position to offer her fundraising expertise.

“Every part of my life, professionally and personally, had prepared me for this moment of fundraising for pediatric brain cancer. To now work alongside my mentor and friend is nothing short of a gift,” said Monica.

Monica lives in Ann Arbor with her husband, Travis, and their four children, Gabriella, Michael, Connor, and Spencer.

The time I’ve spent with the women of ChadTough over the last six months turned out to be a big part of what was missing from my life. Working for myself, from home, certainly had its perks, but I’d become isolated and even a bit self-centered. The world’s problems seemed so distant from my own life. The energy we share at ChadTough is inspiring and passionate, motivating us all to do something bigger than ourselves: to find a cure for pediatric brain cancer.