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‘We’ve been blessed, and you need to share your blessings’

by Lisa Coon |
John and Annette Heller

So say John and Annette Heller, whose contributions have helped child cancer survivors thrive

Bottom line, it was always about helping kids.

So when John and Annette Heller began exploring how they would donate $1 million to a good cause, they knew their end game.

Kids.

“We were both committed to making a gift while still living,” John said. “Our strategic and philanthropic intent was very much about helping children.”

They explored various options, but the epiphany came during a meeting with Dr. Kay Saving, director of medical services and lead pediatric hematologist/oncologist at OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois, said John.

The couple was talking with Saving about medical protocols for treating kids with cancer and how today, more than 80% of kids survive their cancer diagnosis. But for Saving, there was far more that could and should be done for kids with cancer and their families.

“She said, ‘You just don’t get it,’” recalled John. 

Saving explained that while kids can be medically cured, there are so many more services — emotional, educational, etc. — they need in order to thrive. Right then and there, the Hellers knew where their $1 million, along with a $1 million match from the Caterpillar Foundation, would be going.

“It’s not fair for kids to have to fight the hardest fight of their life and not thrive,” John said.

The decision to make the donation was about helping kids with cancer and their families to be the best they can be, Annette said. “And for Peoria to be the best it can be, too,” she said.

Establishing The Heller Center

In 2016, the Hellers made their donation, establishing an endowment for The Heller Center for Kids with Cancer at OSF Children’s Hospital.

The Center isn’t a brick-and-mortar location but a collection of services for pediatric cancer patients and their families that go beyond medical treatment of the disease. There are physical, mental, emotional, educational and spiritual hurdles during a cancer journey, and overcoming them requires special services not traditionally covered by insurance.

“These are services that are not ‘revenue-generating’ and not reimbursed by medical insurance, and are provided by specially-trained professionals, so they need to be paid for with philanthropic dollars,” Saving said. “Without the Heller’s very generous endowed donation, we would not have been able to start the Center, since the hiring of personnel requires a continued, guaranteed source of support.” 

There is no hematology/oncology program in the state outside of Chicago with such a comprehensive array of programs including the psychosocial, nutrition and exercise services that are so critical to successful treatment and survivorship, said Mike Wells, now president of OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center following his run as president at OSF Children’s Hospital.

“Without philanthropy, we simply would not be able to offer such robust … support services” for life after survivorship, added Wells. “The Hellers are so passionate about the program and its impact, and their passion is contagious.”   

Just two farm kids

John and Annette, both 68, grew up in Macon County outside of Decatur but didn’t know each other until both went to work at Caterpillar. They married in 1978.

“We’re just a bunch of farm kids from pretty simple beginnings,” Annette said. “We’ve been blessed, and you need to share your blessings.”

John attended Illinois State University for 1½ years before his inability to hit a curve ball signaled the end of his collegiate baseball career. Out of money to pay tuition, he went to work at Caterpillar in Decatur in 1973 as an account clerk. He went on to finish his bachelor’s degree in business administration at Millikin University and received a master’s in business administration from the University of Illinois. 

Annette attended the Patricia Stevens Business School in St. Louis. She began working at Caterpillar in purchasing. Annette ultimately left the company to run the show at home when the couple’s two children were small. Today, their daughter, Alison, and son, David, both have two children and currently reside in the Dallas area with their families.

John’s career at Caterpillar blossomed as he assumed multiple informational technology positions with ever-increasing responsibilities. The Hellers moved to Peoria in 1989. Other than a three-year stint in Geneva, Switzerland, they’ve called this part of central Illinois home ever since, currently residing in East Peoria. John retired from Caterpillar in 2012 as vice president and chief information officer of the Global Information Services Division.

‘People are so good’

In five years, the Hellers have spearheaded fundraising efforts with the OSF HealthCare Foundation that have grown the endowment to $10 million. They hope to double that.

From golf outings and the annual Morton Gameball Run to large corporate donations and events ranging from chili cook-offs to backyard carnivals, every fundraising effort benefiting the Center is greatly appreciated and every cent stays local, said John.

“People are so good,” said Annette.

Initially, the Hellers wanted to make the donation anonymously. “You’re supposed to walk humbly with God, and I’m not sure how you do that with your name plastered on it,” Annette said. But they soon came to understand the energy and accountability that are created when real names and faces are connected to the mission.

“It’d be easy to just write the check, but our world has changed so much,” Annette said.

Touching lives

The Hellers have been touched by the families and children they’ve met, like Helen Saxby of Litchfield, Illinois, grandmother to Hendrix and Lakota Porter of Peoria.

In 2021, Saxby’s grandsons were diagnosed with Wilms tumor, a form of kidney cancer, within three months of one another. Lakota was 7 years old at the time and The Heller Center made sure he had a teacher to keep him caught up on school work when he had hospital stays or chemotherapy. Both boys also received services from the Center’s exercise physiologist.

Saxby organized a golf outing to help raise $50,000 for an exercise room with the boys’ names on it.

“When we set out doing this, we figured it would take five years to reach our goal,” she said. “We had the first golf outing in July 2021 and we’re at $30,000. We’ll be able to write that check earlier.

“John and Annette are just amazing people,” added Saxby. “What they’ve done with their money for these children … God has a place for them. I don’t know what we’d have done without all the services.”

Saving agrees.

“We, and the children and families we serve, are hugely blessed by the Heller’s devotion to this Center,” she said. “It has and will continue to have a significant, life-affirming impact on our patients and families.

“They are truly extraordinary, tremendously selfless and extremely dedicated to improving the lives of those around them,” Saving said. “They are very thoughtful in their approach to helping others, and have shown … unflagging energy in their continuing efforts to grow the Heller Center endowment so that these services can continue as long as any child here is diagnosed with cancer.”

In short, the Hellers are compassionate, driven and bold, said Wells.

“When they interact with staff and patients in our Hematology/Oncology Clinic or even talk about them, their emotion is palpable. Their commitment truly comes from the heart,” he said. “They don’t ever slow down. John frequently shares a quote by St Augustine: ‘Pray like everything depended on God. Work like everything depended on you.’ He lives it. And they aren’t afraid to dream big.”

Lisa Coon

is a Peoria native who had a long career in the newspaper industry before moving into marketing and communications

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