Noelle Conover is certain her late son Matt would love Matt’s Maker Space, a project at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
“He was always a ‘maker,'” says the 58-year-old Mt. Lebanon resident. “He loved puzzles, Legos, chemistry — anything that was hands-on.”
Matt passed away in 2002 at age 12, just a few months after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Ever since, Noelle has devoted endless hours to keeping his memory alive by helping other families cope with pediatric cancer.
A Passion for Helping
Noelle works as the project coordinator for the SurvivorConnect program at Children’s, part of the Division of Hematology/Oncology’s Pediatric Cancer Survivorship Clinic. “We follow 600-plus survivors of pediatric cancer,” she says. “It’s a passion for me. What we went through with Matt helps me advocate for them.” Those in the program are at least five years post-treatment, with an average age of about 20, she notes. “Many of them don’t even remember being treated as a child.”
Because more and more children are surviving pediatric cancers, SurvivorConnect helps families navigate “new, uncharted territory,” Noelle says. During annual check-ups, patients are screened for thyroid and heart issues and can request referrals for specialists or social services.
“We do wellness and educational events, as well as outings like a picnic at Kennywood,” says Noelle. “We celebrate survivors; it’s like we’re their cheerleaders.”
Giving Back Through Philanthropy
In addition to her work with SurvivorConnect, Noelle and her family have been instrumental in bringing other changes to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
“Some time after Matt passed away, I got a call from a woman at the Children’s Hospital Foundation asking if I wanted to get involved with their work,” she says. “My initial reaction was: ‘No, why would I?'” After a second call a few months later, Noelle changed her mind. “They were building a new hospital, and they wanted our perspective on what they could do better. I realized I might be able to help other families because of what we went through.”
In 2009, the Conovers became donors to Children’s. They opened Matt’s Media 4 Kids with Cancer, which provides gaming, movies, and computers for kids on the inpatient hematology/oncology unit.
“As a donor, you don’t always know where the needs are, but as a patient’s family, you see them,” Noelle says.
Matt’s Maker Spaces
Noelle’s latest project at Children’s is raising money for Matt’s Maker Spaces — a hands-on, cutting-edge place for kids to explore STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). In the Matt’s Maker Spaces, patients use 3-D printers or computers to complete projects or solve problems.
The concept has gone beyond the hospital’s walls. In 2016, the Conovers helped fund Matt’s Maker Spaces in each of the seven elementary schools in the Mt. Lebanon School District. Going forward, the plan is to open at least one Matt’s Maker Space each year. Children’s is also working with the Conovers and Dave’s employer, Ansys, to deliver hands-on making programs in the Maker Spaces with partners such as the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Science Center.
Noelle never intended to be one of the life changers at Children’s — but that’s exactly where she ended up.
“I’m in a unique position because I’ve worn all four hats — the mom of a patient, a volunteer, an employee, and a donor,” says Noelle. “It’s an amazing place. If my family could get through this with the help of Children’s, there’s hope for other families, too.”
To get involved and learn more about Matt’s Maker Spaces, visit Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.