There is no typical day at work for Andie McConnell, but there is a common theme running through every task she performs as executive director of The Fairy Godmother Project.
Whether she is taking a 5-mile walk with a bereaved mother to help her grieve, filling buckets with storm-preparedness supplies she knows her families won’t have time to gather or calling donors to thank them for supporting this organization that helps families touched by pediatric cancer, her mission is singular.
She and her FGP team work to anticipate needs, solve problems and accentuate positive moments for families whose lives have been turned upside-down by a cancer diagnosis, or who are grieving the loss of a child.
McConnell, who started the organization with her friend, photographer and FGP board member Stephanie Johnson, in May 2012, says people often say to her, “I could never do what you do.”
But McConnell says the calling she felt to do more for these uniquely challenged families was a gift to her at a time when she needed to find a vocation that was bigger than herself as she dealt with her own frustrations with life as a stay-at-home mother to young children.
“I was looking to make a difference in my own life,” she said. “This experience and meeting these families and the volunteers and the donors—it has changed me extensively as a person. … My whole day is surrounded by positive.”
It might not be everyone’s logical conclusion to say that a day spent beating down the obstacles posed by pediatric cancer treatments is a day spent amid positivity, but that perspective is everything to McConnell’s work.
“Even in a moment when a child dies and it’s horrible and it’s gut-wrenching, there is so much beauty in the love that surrounds the child, it’s just beyond words,” she said. “When I watch these families feel that depth of loss, it hurts so much because all that grief is that love for their child. It comes from no place else except love, and that is so beautiful.”
Jeremy McCommons, an FGP board member, said McConnell’s passion and hands-on approach have been central to the organization’s growth and the connections it makes with the families it serves.
“She has a real way of connecting with people and an authenticity that is contagious,” he said. “She runs an organization with systems and processes, but she never loses track of the fact that these are people, personalities, feelings, emotions and that her involvement in it really makes a big difference.”
The Fairy Godmother Project’s growth over the past five years means McConnell will lead the organization through a strategic planning process and trying to standardize the training and tasks that go into answering the question: What can we do to make life easier for these families?
That means writing a playbook for tough questions: How do you support a bereaved family? How do you comfort a family who must drive six hours a day for cancer treatments, or prop them up when one parent must take time away from paid employment?
These questions are the roadblocks that can lead friends and loved ones to disappear in the face of a major challenge like a cancer diagnosis.
To those who feel powerless to help friends in crisis, McConnell says admitting that you can’t lift the burden, and that you can’t imagine what this pain must feel like, is a good starting point.
Then, just be there.
“Show up. Shift into action,” she says. “I can’t change the diagnosis. I can’t change the outcome. But I can do something.”