What happens after you lose a child? For this woman, her pain became her purpose.
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Old Navy Cozy Socks

When Athena White lost her only child, the grief nearly consumed her.

The void left after her son’s passing was, at first, one filled with anger. "He was 25," she explains. "My son was my life. I was a lost soul."

Athena might have felt lost, but she also soon found kindness where she least expected it: at work. Her coworkers at Old Navy, recognizing her pain, quickly stepped in to support her.


"They could’ve easily said, 'I’m sorry you’re having a hard time, here’s some flowers,'" she says. Instead of empty condolences, they showed up in a big way. "They said, 'How much time do you need? What can we do?'"

And it wasn’t just the compassion of those around her that made an impact. It was their belief in Athena herself — in particular, their belief that she had a story worth telling.

Athena White in an Old Navy store. All images provided by Gap Inc.

It was that belief that led Athena’s district manager to offer her an opportunity that would change her life.

He saw her not as a lost soul, but as someone with real potential for leadership. That’s when he connected Athena to This Way Ahead, Old Navy's internship program that would allow her to transform her pain into purpose.

"I didn’t know at the time, but it’s definitely turned my life around, being part of [This Way Ahead]."

This Way Ahead is a paid internship program for young adults that offers career and skills training programs by partnering with nonprofits and connecting young adults with mentors like Athena. After 10 weeks, interns walk away with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace and, most importantly, the connection and care to realize their own self-worth.

It’s that connection that Athena says helped her cope with her grief.

"They’re looking for someone to listen to them; they’re looking for direction, someone that’s just there," she explains. "I lost my son, but I gained so many young adults in my life ... it makes me feel whole. It fills a void."

It’s a tradition of giving back, Athena says, that began with her mother and her son. "My mom was the biggest cheerleader I ever had," she says. And her son, too, had the biggest heart of anyone she knew.

"It’s grown into something bigger than myself," she explains. Mentoring youth helps her carry on the loving legacy left behind by her mother and son and, in turn, allows every youth she inspires to go on and make an impact too.

Athena White with former This Way Ahead intern, and now Old Navy Associate, Yazmeen Owens.

"My mission, in turn, is how do I pay it forward? How do I give back?"

For Athena, giving back isn’t just about giving these youth an internship. It’s about creating a connection that allows them to thrive.

"We’ve all made mistakes," she shares. She sees her role as one where she not only offers skills in the workplace, but gives the genuine support and care that many of the youth lack.

"Sometimes, these young kids, they don’t have the support. [They need] to know that there’s somebody that truly cares."

One intern that Athena remembers started out in the program as shy and withdrawn. At first, Athena wondered if she even wanted to be there.

"She wasn’t open to trusting," Athena explains. "I kept insisting, in my mind, there was something more to this young lady. My mission was to open her eyes and open her heart."

And with time, the two formed a special bond.

"She just started to warm up," Athena recalls. "Every time she’d see me, her eyes would just light up." And not only did she complete the program — she now works with Athena at Old Navy and is returning to school. "She’s a whole different person now," Athena raves.

And stories like hers aren’t uncommon — 74% of graduates from the This Way Ahead program receive job offers upon completion, with a retention rate twice that of their peers.

Yazmeen Owens and Athena White.

For youth in the program, particularly those from disadvantaged communities, This Way Ahead offers one opportunity that can transform the rest of their lives.

It’s an opportunity that Athena is honored to be a part of. "They were [all] seeking something more than a job," she explains.

For some, what they seek is real support and connection. For others, like one memorable alumni from Oakland, they’re looking for a shot at a brighter, better future.

"He had never been outside of Oakland," Athena shares. "Now he’s in college in Indiana. Whatever it takes, he’s going to be a doctor. He [just needed] to get out of the neighborhood."

And that's why, Athena says, programming like this needs direct support. "We have to keep the program alive," she explains.

And with the right support, not only will the program survive — it can thrive. Old Navy is in the process of expanding the program through a donation campaign on Black Friday 2017; for every $1 cozy sock purchased, Old Navy will match it with a donation to Boys & Girls Clubs, up to $1 million. These donations will expand their offerings to create more career opportunities for youth.

For a customer, it might seem like a small gesture. But it adds up. And for Athena and the youth she mentors, those small gestures mean a continued impact well into the future.

Thanks to the support she received in her darkest hour, Athena is now an unstoppable force for good in the lives of countless youth.

"Every year, I want more kids," she laughs.

When asked what she’s learned from her experiences as a mentor, she recalls the impact that one person can have on others. "Take a moment, give somebody your time, listen to somebody," she shares.

"You never know what you’re offering; you never know what someone is going to take from that conversation. Be mindful that people are listening, they are watching. You can change somebody’s life."

And for the kids mentored by Athena, with futures now brimming with possibility, there’s no greater lesson than that.

The airline industry was one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as global and domestic travel came to a screeching halt last spring. When the pandemic was officially declared in March of 2020, no one knew what to expect or how long the timeline of lockdowns and life changes would last.

Two weeks after the declaration, Delta pilot Chris Dennis flew one of the airline's planes to Victorville, CA for storage. He shared photos on Facebook that day of empty planes neatly lined up, saying it was a day he would remember for the rest of his life.

"Chilling, apocalyptic, surreal...all words that still don't fit what is happening in the world," he wrote. "Each one of these aircraft represents hundreds of jobs, if not more."

He added:

Keep Reading Show less

The airline industry was one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as global and domestic travel came to a screeching halt last spring. When the pandemic was officially declared in March of 2020, no one knew what to expect or how long the timeline of lockdowns and life changes would last.

Two weeks after the declaration, Delta pilot Chris Dennis flew one of the airline's planes to Victorville, CA for storage. He shared photos on Facebook that day of empty planes neatly lined up, saying it was a day he would remember for the rest of his life.

"Chilling, apocalyptic, surreal...all words that still don't fit what is happening in the world," he wrote. "Each one of these aircraft represents hundreds of jobs, if not more."

He added:

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."