- Sandra Nardoci co-founded Circle of Champs in 1993 to improve the quality of life for children and their families coping with life-threatening illnesses.
- Nardoci was inspired to start the program after the death of her father, who worried about the children he saw in the hospital during his own battle with colon cancer.
- Circle of Champs is currently serving 138 families in the Albany, N.Y., area.
Prior to the pandemic, Maddie Leitch, 14, attended Champs Camp every summer, unless new problems arose with her heart or her severe scoliosis. The day camp in the Albany, N.Y., area is for both kids with life-threatening illnesses and their siblings. Her heroine: REALTOR® Sandra Nardoci, who co-founded the Capital District YMCA Circle of Champs program in Albany, N.Y., 27 years ago and still serves as an extremely active volunteer. “Kids like me, who don’t get to go out much with our disabilities, get to go on a zip line or rock climb and run around and be free and forget about our disability,” says Maddie. “They make sure the zip line is super safe for everyone. There’s some kids who are in wheelchairs, and they still make it accessible for them.”
Though Maddie understands the YMCA needed to cancel this summer’s activities because of the pandemic, she was “heartbroken,” says her mom, Sheri Leitch. “She wanted to be able to be with all her friends and see Sandy at camp.”
When she isn’t reaching out to children like Maddie, Nardoci, CRS, SRES, sells homes as an agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, Blake, REALTORS®. Last year, Maddie couldn’t go to camp, so Nardoci got the other participants to sign a poster-sized card that said, “We hope you feel better. We’re always thinking of you. We love you.” One year, Maddie couldn’t go on the zip line, but Nardoci came to the rescue. “She sat with me for, like, two hours,” Maddie says. “She played Uno with me.” Nardoci, whom she calls “one of my best friends,” even attended her eighth birthday party, themed after the movie “Frozen.” Nardoci’s petite size can be misleading. “When you walk up to her, you think she’s going to be quiet, but all of a sudden, she’s like, ‘Hi!’” says Maddie.
In non-pandemic times, with its annual budget of $250,000, Circle of Champs makes sure kids like Maddie and their families can participate for free in YMCA classes and monthly events like trips to the aquarium and bowling alley, movie nights, ice skating, and Valentine’s and holiday parties. “There would be a huge void in my life if I didn’t do this,” says Nardoci, who refers to Circle of Champs children who die as “our angels” and feels extremely close to the 138 families currently in the program. “We forever keep their memories alive,” says Karen Hennet, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Capital District YMCA.
Nardoci’s father, who passed away in 1987 after battling colon cancer, was her inspiration for starting the program. “I always remember him being sad when he came home” from the hospital she says. “‘What about all these little kids? What’s going to happen to them? Are they going to die?’”
“All children should have the opportunity to find joy and happiness.” —Sandra Nardoci
With extensive support from the Capital District YMCA, Circle of Champs makes sure “nobody ever feels alone,” Nardoci says. “Having someone in the family who’s ill is similar to the quarantine life many of us are experiencing because of COVID-19.” She likes to “service the entire family,” she says. “When one child gets sick, it affects the dynamics of the whole family.”
As she volunteers for Circle of Champs, Nardoci dances her way into the hearts of the kids and their parents. “I just love Zumba,” she says, referring to how “we just shake it up at the parties. My family’s from Cuba, and we have that Latin spirit.”
For Circle of Champs’ parties, Nardoci always dresses in costume. Once she transformed into Cinderella. For a Texas-themed bash, she “came running over to me with a cowboy hat on,” says Sheri Leitch, who first met Nardoci in 2011. “You feel like you’ve been friends with her forever.”
Nardoci’s warmth, positive energy, and uncanny ability to remember names and birthdays makes campers and their parents feel cared for. “We have to earn that kind of trust, just like in real estate,” she says.
During the pandemic, Nardoci is posting Circle of Champs pictures from the past on Facebook. “She’s been sharing the memories that we did create,” says Hennet. “We won’t have lost touch.” Nardoci’s enthusiasm for the program and the community also infuses her real estate business. “If she’s sold a house, she’s told the future owner about the school district, the Y,” says Hennet. And of course, Circle of Champs. “I’m out there as an ambassador to these children,” Nardoci says.
Nicki White, vice president of philanthropy for the Capital District YMCA, credits Nardoci, who holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, with “modeling what it means to be a good citizen and somebody who really gives back to the community.” At the local children’s hospital, White says, “Everyone knows who Sandy Nardoci is. She’s just a local hero.” She’s also an excellent fundraiser. “People see Sandy coming, and they’re opening their checkbooks,” she says. “She lights up a room. She’s so slight in stature. But she fills a room completely.”
Pride and Joy
At a camp cookout, Erin Musto, who lost her 5-year-old daughter to a brain tumor in 2012, met Laurel McAdoo, whose 9-year-old son, Myles, was dying from a brain tumor. The two have become friends for life—and credit Circle of Champs and Nardoci for bringing them together. “She is sunshine in a bottle, Sandy is,” says McAdoo. These informal support groups are a wonderful, extra “unintended consequence,” says Hennet.
Although Sandy and her husband, Joe, never had children of their own, she’s a superstar to countless young people. “The kids are all out on the dance floor, dancing with Sandy,” says Hennet. “She is the maestro of all that’s going on out there. Sandy has moves.”
“This is a labor of love for me,” says Nardoci, who helps the children forget about hospitals, needles, and spinal taps. “I start with these kids when they’re really young, and they’re going through devastating, challenging treatments,” she says. “We have to try to find some hopefulness and lift them up. COVID has been terrible. It’s the first time in 23 years we haven’t been able to go to camp.”
But she won’t be deterred by the pandemic as she keeps “helping and listening,” she says. “All children should have the opportunity to find joy and happiness.”