Treat others as you wish to be treated. Do small things with great love.
To Edward McNamara, president and CEO of Cleveland-based insurance brokerage firm Armada Risk Partners, these timeless maxims aren’t strictly business. They’re personal.
In 2007, after their 6-year-old daughter, Maria, was diagnosed with brain cancer, McNamara and his wife, Megan, co-founded the Prayers From Maria Foundation. The nonprofit is dedicated to funding global research into the causes, prevention, treatment and cure for pediatric glioma brain tumors.
Maria lost her 14-month battle with brain cancer on July 14, 2007, but the Avon Lake couple’s work continued. To date, the foundation’s efforts have raised more than $12 million for the fight against childhood brain cancer, including numerous promising research studies across the U.S.
“While Maria was still alive, we felt the urgency to do something,” Megan McNamara says. “After her death, we knew we had to keep going to help other children.”
A picture of rosy health, Maria was a cheerful child who enjoyed the role of being a big sister to her three brothers, taking dance classes and playing dress-up.
“She loved to tell jokes,” Edward recalls. “She loved to laugh all of the time. Maria was a dream. I can’t describe her any other way. She was perfect.”
That sunny world changed in 2006 when the little girl began having trouble walking and seeing. She also exhibited physical changes that were initially attributed to Bell’s palsy, a neurological condition that causes partial paralysis of the face.
“A neighbor who’s a doctor didn’t agree,” Edward recalls. “He said, ‘You know, this is something a little different. Why don’t you bring her in tomorrow for some tests?’”
A CT scan the following morning detected fluid in the brain, and an MRI was ordered.
“At the end of the day,” Edward recalls, “the doctor came in and said it’s the worst of the worst.”
On April 1, 2006, Maria was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, a highly aggressive and difficult-to-treat tumor. The glioma family of tumors accounts for almost 45% of all tumors. They’re the second-highest cause of cancer deaths among young people, and 85% to 95% of children diagnosed with a malignant glioma die within five years. Those with the worst of the gliomas — the kind from which Maria suffered — die within three years.
“Megan and I called every possible doctor throughout the country looking for treatment advice,” Edward says. “We discovered that currently, childhood glioma research is grossly underfunded. One doctor advised we try something no one has ever done before because nothing has worked in 30 years.”
After two months of radiation and chemotherapy at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, Maria’s condition improved. Her tumor had shrunk by 99%, and she began to gain strength and facial movement.
During this time, the McNamaras started Prayers For Maria, a blog designed to keep family and friends updated about her condition. It included a photo of their daughter happily standing amid a field of sunflowers. Within weeks, the blog had thousands of followers.
Over the ensuing months, Maria’s condition ebbed and flowed but, Edward recalls in a voice choked with emotion, her concern for the children she met at St. Jude’s never wavered. She told her dad she wanted to pray for them.
“At first I was angry,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Why should she spend so much time praying for other kids, when she should be praying for herself?’ Maria’s selflessness was a very humbling experience. We knew we had to do more for all of the kids out there.”
The McNamaras launched the Prayers From Maria Foundation on Jan. 11, 2007, Maria’s seventh birthday. As it should be for any nonprofit, Edward explains, the name was meticulously chosen to exemplify the universal compassion and hope the foundation exudes.
“Megan and I didn’t start the foundation in memory of our daughter,” Edward says. “We started it in memory of our daughter’s prayers to help other kids. That’s why we chose Prayers From Maria, rather than Prayers For Maria.”
The couple created an advisory board made up of renowned pediatric oncologists and researchers from around the country who established stringent guidelines for grant applications the foundation receives. Edward adds that the medical professionals also provide the specialized knowledge that’s a crucial component all nonprofits need to succeed.
“After we raised our first $50,000, we began accepting grant applications,” he says. “Megan and I are not biochemists or nuclear researchers. We had no idea what institutions we should award dollars to. Now, we leave it to our board of experts to make the decisions.”
That know-how is also a point patrons should keep in mind before making a contribution to any nonprofit.
“Most donors don’t think about following the funding to see where the money goes,” Edward says. “They feel good simply because they’ve contributed. But, you should ask yourself, ‘Did I give to an organization that offers the best chance for success to the cause I’m interested in?’”
As a result, Prayers From Maria recipients include Cleveland Clinic, MetroHealth Medical Center, Case Western Reserve University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Washington University.
Throughout the years, Prayers From Maria has continued to blossom in a variety of ways. Two Fields of Hope filled with sunflowers — a 42-acre garden in Avon and a 9-acre plot along the Cedar Point causeway — help spread the word about the foundation’s mission. They’ve become a destination for people from around the world who’ve lost loved ones of all ages to cancer or are dealing with the disease themselves. Visitors are invited to leave notes about what the garden means to them. There’s no admission fee, but donations are gratefully accepted.
“We love to visit the fields and talk with those who come,” Megan says. “They share their stories of joys and sorrows with us. We don’t ask for a donation, but they give out of the goodness of their hearts. I can’t help but think there is a bigger plan at work here.”
On-site and online gift shops are filled with apparel, jewelry and home decor items emblazoned with images of Maria’s favorite flower, which has become the bright yellow beacon of hope for so many, and special events are held around Cleveland throughout the year. All proceeds support the foundation.
“What applies to a nonprofit business also applies to a for-profit one,” Edward says. “If you’re trying to build your company just by selling something, you won’t get loyalty, you won’t get dedication, you won’t get consistency. But, if you focus on the betterment of others, your company will grow naturally. It’ll be an organization that people want to be part of.”