Mario Lemieux is a legend. He’s done it all on and off the ice as a player and owner. He’s won all the individual awards, the MVP trophies, the Stanley Cups, and even kept the Penguins in Pittsburgh, but it’s his work away from the game that’s made him a hero.
When he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in the summer of 1993 he did what he’s done to most opponents that have crossed his path – he beat it with style and grace. Then he decided that beating his own cancer wasn’t enough. He wanted to help everyone who has battled or will battle the disease and founded the Mario Lemieux Foundation with the assistance of his wife Nathalie.
The charitable organization celebrated its 25th anniversary on Nov. 15.
Mario, Nathalie and their foundation remain dedicated to cancer research and patient care and have donated nearly $25 million to foundation related programs and built 36 Austin’s Playrooms for children and families who find themselves in challenging medical situations.
“It’s been such an honor to work with Mario and Nathalie because they’re so committed to the cause, and because they’re so directly involved,” says Nancy Angus, executive director of the MLF. “We came from very modest beginnings to the point where we’ve donated more than $25 million to cancer research and other causes, which is remarkable for a foundation our size.”
The foundation began with a focus on funding research to find a cure for cancer, but Nathalie established the Austin’s Playrooms initiative, creating playrooms for children and families in hospitals and other medical facilities after their son Austin was born premature in 1996.
Austin was in neonatal intensive care for more than 70 days and the Lemieuxs realized that there was little to engage their two young daughters Lauren and Stephanie. That experience planted the seed, Nathalie devised the plan, raised the funds and launched the program in the year 2000. There are now 36 Austin’s Playrooms, including three military playrooms at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton in California and Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Other Notable Achievements include: The Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center; The Mario Lemieux Centers for Patient Care and Research; The Lemieux Family Center at the Children’s Home of Pittsburgh; The Mario Lemieux Lymphoma Center for Children and Young Adults at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
Paul Steigerwald of the Penguins Radio Network has known the Lemieux family since Mario’s arrival in Pittsburgh in 1984 and he’s been wowed by their philanthropy.
“The Mario Lemieux Foundation is the ultimate testament to the indomitable spirits of Mario and Nathalie,” Steigerwald says. “Their legacy is one of triumph over adversity.
“Mario’s successful battle with cancer wasn’t enough. He felt compelled to transform those dark days for him and his loved ones into brighter days for hundreds of thousands of people who will benefit from his foundation and the same can be said with regard to the premature birth of their son, Austin. Nathalie transformed that difficult experience into an idea that has made the experience of having a sick sibling infinitely more tolerable than it was for Austin’s sisters. There is no better testament to the character of Mario Lemieux than his passion for giving others a chance to win.”