Alum’s non-profit gives children courage to face treatments for life-threatening illnesses

PITTSBURGH — Fifty-two weeks of pediatric chemotherapy treatments may require the courage of a superhero, so Courtney Durante’s new non-profit organization, Costumes for Courage, wants to ensure the superheroes have a costume to match their courage.

The idea behind Costumes for Courage is that children who are facing chemotherapy or some other serious treatment can get a costume of their favorite superhero to wear to their treatment.

“It does take superhero strength to endure the treatments,” said Durante, who earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and an MBA from Carlow University in 2008 and 2011, respectively. “These costumes serve as a suit of armor and help give children the strength they need to face their medical challenges. If it brings a smile to their face, even if only for a few minutes, it’s worth it.”

Durante discovered the difference a costume can make when her daughter Lilli was diagnosed with optic glioma, a tumor on the optic nerve of one of her eyes, in 2018. The then four-year-old was facing 52 weeks of chemotherapy and insisted on wearing a princess dress to one of her appointments.

“Wearing the dress made her excited to go to her appointment,” said Durante, who, speaking from a mother’s perspective, described the initial diagnosis and subsequent treatments as shocking and frightening. “It was like we were hit with a ton of bricks. She handled it so well though that it made it easier on us.”

The staff at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh were also excited to see Lilli’s princess dress and made a fuss about her costumes, asking her what she would wear next. A social media post from Children’s about Lilli went viral, and strangers began sending princess dresses to the hospital for her.

Fifty-two princess dresses later, Lilli’s tumor is stable, but Durante describes the nature of this type of tumor is that it could begin growing again at any time.

Nevertheless, focusing on the positive, in 2020 Durante, her sister, brother-in-law and a friend formed Costumes for Courage as a 501 (c)(3). It’s an organization that seeks to help other children who may be facing serious illness. The company runs on donations – all four of the founders work full-time jobs and work to fulfill the requests for costumes in their spare time. All of them do this as a labor of love. Since October 2020, they’ve sent out 100 costumes to children in more than 20 different U.S. states and four foreign countries.

“Our favorite part is hearing back from the parents of the children,” Durante said. “We love to receive photos of the kids in their costumes and hear how it impacted them.”

Tommy Summers, the son of Ashley (Weidwald) Summers, a Carlow alumna from the class of 2007, was born with a rare genetic condition called Cri du Chat syndrome, also known as “cat’s cry syndrome” or “5p-” (pronounced five p minus), where part of the fifth chromosome is missing. Summers said they are in and out of the hospital several times per year.

“This amazing costume has given Tommy the ability to feel strong,” she said. “Behind the mask, Tommy is just a regular little boy fighting a lifelong battle. The costume empowers him to get through a tough time and show the world that 5p- is beautiful!”

Four-year old Pirlo Nesic, the son of Kalena (Garcia) Nesic, has received whole body irradiation and cranial irradiation for cancer since he was 21 months old, and has endured many side effects and a relapse along the way.

“Before his relapse, he met a wonderful little girl named Lilli, and they became friends,” Kalena said. “Once Pirlo’s relapse happened, Costumes for Courage sent him an Ant Man costume which really lifted his spirits. All of this happened because of his sweet friend Lilli and her mother who started a beautiful nonprofit organization. We are grateful to them for sharing their love of costumes with us.”

While the inspiration for Costumes for Courage comes from Lilli, Durante believes the roots of her desire to help others comes from her experience at Carlow.

“There were a lot of influences at Carlow that have encouraged me to serve the community,” she said. “I participated in Alternative Spring Break and various service projects during my days as a student. I’m sure all of that had an impact and drove my desire to help others.”

For more information: Visit the Costumes for Courage website or find them on Facebook @CostumesforCourage.

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