Payton Conard ’24 has her sights set on medical school, but she isn’t waiting until she gets her M.D. to help patients. She founded a campus chapter of Project Sunshine, a national organization that seeks to bring joy and play to children with illnesses. Conard and the club’s other members put together fundraisers and events that directly help these pediatric patients. Starting in the spring, they are excited to meet virtually with pediatric patients to play games and support their development as they face medical challenges.
“My compassion for the kids with Project Sunshine definitely stems from my own health problems,” Conard said. She openly shares that she has several rare chronic illnesses, along with rare orthopedic problems. She has had numerous orthopedic surgeries throughout her life that have provided some improvement, but she still experiences ongoing issues.
Conard has always loved science, and as she got to know a few of her surgeons, they became mentors and inspired her to pursue a career in surgery. “You’re changing people’s lives with your own hands,” Conard reflected.
She is majoring in biology and triple-minoring in pre-medicine, chemistry and psychology. One of Conard’s favorite classes was molecular biology with Biology Professor Daniel Ginsburg, Ph.D. “Dr. Ginsburg has a great way of engaging his students during class. He truly cares for his students and wants everyone to succeed. It was definitely a class I looked forward to attending,” Conard said.
Biology Professor Sister Susan Cronin, IHM, Ph.D., discussed potential career paths in biology with Conard, mentioning Immaculata’s partnership agreement with Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, offering students who meet qualifications guaranteed acceptance to the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine program. Conard plans to apply to medical schools this summer.
Conard is combining her health care studies with health-related volunteer work through the Project Sunshine chapter. She decided to hold a kickball tournament as a social event and fundraiser to support Project Sunshine’s national organization. “I have a huge love for sports, and I knew that a lot of other students do, too,” she said. “Overall, we just want people to have fun!”
Conard and the four other members of the chapter’s executive board set a goal of raising $300 from the tournament. “Each member of our executive board has a passion for helping others, especially children. All of us are in healing profession majors,” Conard said.
Twenty-eight people—three student teams and one team of faculty and staff—signed up to participate and paid the entry fee. Conard said several members of the IU community who did not participate in the tournament also made donations.
On a beautiful October evening, the players donned bright yellow Project Sunshine T-shirts and took their places on the back campus quad, transformed into a kickball field with smiley face balloons to mark the bases. The teams engaged in some friendly trash-talk as a Spotify playlist blasted hit songs. Outfielders raced to catch fly balls as kickers sprinted around the bases. Spectators cheered from the sidelines as the teams faced off against each other and progressed through the competition. The winning team, who had chosen the name “the Grass Kickers” for the tournament, won IU swag and posed for pictures with their medals.
When Conard and her executive team totaled their donations, they raised $850 for Project Sunshine—well above their goal—to fund research and provide support for hospitalized children across the U.S.
The group hasn’t stopped there. In November, they decorated about 70 cards for kids in hospitals and co-hosted a blood drive through the Red Cross with Immaculata’s Student Nurses Association, the senior class of the Student Government Association and the Student Wellness Center. In December, the Project Sunshine chapter held a hot chocolate and doughnut fundraiser and raised another $101 for the national organization. In January, Conard said, “We also are excited to hold a ‘Sending Sunshine’ event where we put together activity kits for pediatric patients. These include basketball hoop kits, dolls, scrapbook kits and more!”
She added, “Our chapter is truly a team effort, and we would not have been able to be as successful as we are without the help of our entire team—Mary Charnichko (vice president), Jahky Saintillien (treasurer), Brooke Tyree (secretary), Abby Reese (fundraising coordinator) and Dr. Stephen Mason (advisor).”
As a patient and an aspiring doctor, Conard has found her work with the Project Sunshine chapter rewarding. “Their mission is something that is super special to me.”