Steven Firestein thought he had it all. At 27, he owned a plush Encino home, drove a Cadillac and made a nice living as a real estate agent. Then he felt a bump on his scalp.
For months, Firestein ignored the growth, fearing he had cancer. By the time he went under the knife, the tumor had grown to the size of a golf ball. Although, it turned out to be benign, the cancer scare forced him to reassess his priorities. Firestein, who had met several children with cancer during his doctor visits, decided to devote his life to alleviating their pain and suffering.
"I wanted to do something for them," Firestein said. "I felt like they got a bad deal. I was no saint, and I thought, 'Why was I spared? Why did they get cancer?'"
In 1994, a year after his brush with mortality, Firestein founded a nonprofit that would eventually become the Kids Cancer Connection. A descendant of cosmetics magnate Max Factor -- whose family has donated millions to local charities -- he invested $10,000 to get the project going.
Firestein decided his L.A.-based organization's first program would be to give hats and caps to young cancer patients who had lost their hair from chemotherapy, radiation and other treatments. To Firestein, the Magical Caps for Kids program resonated strongly with him; doctors had shaved his head before removing his benign tumor, leaving him feeling vulnerable and self-conscious. To date, Magical Caps has given away an estimated 40,000 caps across the nation.
"I think what he's doing is terrific," said Marcia Helton, a 59-year-old professional caregiver from Los Osos, Calif., who has assembled a group of girls called the Little Angels to knit hats, scarves and blankets for Kids Cancer Connection and other charities. The caps "make kids feel cared about. It's also great for their families, because the families feel better when their kids feel better."
Under Firestein's direction, Kids Cancer Connection branched out into new areas. In the late '90s, the charity began sponsoring field trips to Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm and other attractions. Firestein, wherever possible, used his networking abilities to procure free tickets, even tapping the California Travel & Tourism Commission for vouchers.
Later, he helped establish the Courageous Kid Recognition Award to recognize the bravery of children battling cancer. Recently, a young boy undergoing a bone marrow transplant received the award at the Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA, where he now seeks treatment. More than 2,000 kids around the country have won the award since the program began in 2003.
Firestein himself has been recognized for his efforts. In 1995, he won a National Volunteer Service Award from Volunteers of America. In November, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) took to the House floor to praise Firestein's efforts.
Now a 40-year-old middle-school teacher in the Valley, Firestein still spends 20 hours a week on the Kids Cancer Connection, which has 300 volunteers nationally. Despite the time and financial demands, he has no regrets.
"I totally feel like I'm making a difference," Firestein said.
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