When first-grader Stella walked onto Audi Field on Sept. 21, 2019, to more than 17,000 cheering Washington Spirit soccer fans in the stands, it was understandably a tad overwhelming. Stella is used to being in front of large, adoring crowds, though, and she handled the spotlight like a pro. As a one-time St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital patient, she takes her role in raising awareness for the organization seriously, and regularly jumps at the chance to participate in events like the game night dedicated to St. Jude hosted by Washington Spirit, DC’s National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) team.
“She may be only 7, but I think she completely understands what a wonderful place St. Jude is and she has a lot of gratitude,” Stella’s mom, Crystal, says. “She knows if it wasn’t for St. Jude, she probably wouldn’t even be here today.”
Stella was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of leukemia with an estimated four percent survival rate when she was just 4 years old, after her local children’s hospital sent blood work to St. Jude doctors for a second opinion. Stella and her family spent New Year’s of 2017 at St. Jude in Memphis, where Stella began undergoing chemotherapy and eventually received a bone marrow transplant. Crystal credits St. Jude with not only saving her daughter’s life, but also allowing her family to easily stay together as they flew back and forth from Baltimore to receive treatment at zero cost to their family.
Now almost three years post-transplant (which her family calls her “re-birthday”), Stella gets to live life fully by attending swim and dance classes, going to friends’ parties, and putting on yard sales, where she chooses to donate all her proceeds to St. Jude.
Supporting patients like Stella is exactly why Washington Spirit co-captain and midfielder Tori Huster decided to join forces with St. Jude as its first-ever St. Jude Regional Champion. On that September night at Audi Field when Huster’s partnership was announced, Huster stayed close to Stella as the two walked out together for the coin toss, with Stella wearing her favorite pink cowgirl boots and her very own Washington Spirit jersey, a gift from Huster. The experience was one neither Stella or Huster will soon forget.
Partnerships between St. Jude and for-profit businesses are crucial in raising the millions of dollars necessary to advance research toward finding cures for kids with childhood cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. Not only does it change families’ lives, but the businesses and spokespeople who partner with St. Jude get the opportunity to invest deeply in their communities while raising their own organizations’ profiles.
“A match made in heaven” is how Huster describes her budding relationship with St. Jude. In addition to her co-captain responsibilities and mentoring the younger players on the team, Huster was eager to take on more of a hands-on role in the DMV community she’s called home for nearly seven years after being signed to the Spirit in 2013. Exactly one day after Huster expressed her desire to become involved with children’s health organizations in the DMV to Washington Spirit staff, St. Jude’s Mid-Atlantic office came knocking on Washington Spirit’s door hoping to collaborate. The serendipitous timing couldn’t have worked out better.
Huster’s passion for the St. Jude mission is evident, and it began when she was growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and saw one of her close childhood friends facing a cancer diagnosis. Huster carried that experience with her and has looked for cancer foundations and nonprofits over the years to dedicate her time to, living out her personal motto to “inspire others to inspire others.”
While St. Jude may be based in Memphis, its protocols and freely-shared research are treating patients across the United States, including DC, Maryland and Virginia, and even around the world. Huster hopes her regional partnership with St. Jude will help remind DMV residents that their support is instrumental in making sure kids like Stella get the care they need without families ever having to pay a bill.
“We can never give back to St. Jude what they’ve given to us,” Crystal says. “Until you live and breathe it, you don’t understand the amplitude of what St. Jude actually has to offer and what amazing things St. Jude does.”
As Washington Spirit’s profile in the DMV continues to grow at a rapid pace, Huster’s role of raising awareness and funds for St. Jude within the community and meeting patient families is significant when it comes to expanding the Spirit’s lasting impact. In addition to that September night with Stella at Audi Field, Huster participated in the St. Jude Golden Gala and met patient families in Memphis during St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend in December.
On Feb. 27, Huster and Stella got a chance to reunite at the St. Jude Gourmet Gala, where Stella was the featured patient, and Crystal spoke to the crowd of hundreds of supporters with Stella by her side. Huster, eager to share her commitment to St. Jude and to Stella, brought with her Steve Baldwin, majority owner of the Spirit, along with two teammates — Ashley Hatch and Kaiya McCullough.
“No one gets to where they are just by themselves,” Huster says.
Ever the team player, Huster knows working together—whether it’s on or off the field—is the key to success.