The Long Ride for Children’s Health

After his daughter was diagnosed with and successfully treated for leukemia, Steve Sparks tweaked his career route to align more with a new life mission

By 1993, Steve Sparks had been working in a private practice as a lawyer for over fifteen years. His then-three-year-old daughter’s leukemia diagnosis both changed his life and permanently altered his professional path. His daughter is healthy now, but Sparks says the impact of the diagnosis remains.

“The experience of having your child face a life-threatening illness changes your perspective on a lot of things,” he says. “It certainly did for me in connection with how I wanted to spend my workday. I wanted to do something that served others and a purpose greater than myself.”

A few years after his daughter completed her treatments, the opportunity arose to serve that purpose through Nemours, a nonprofit, pediatric health system that was looking to hire its first lawyer.

Through innovative research, advocacy, and clinical care, Nemours serves to improve the health of children, with a high standard of care regardless of the patient’s financial status.

An award-winning institution, Nemours provides patient-centered care, where the concerns of both children and their families are taken into consideration. This was the kind of culture and environment where Sparks felt he could find a greater purpose.

Sparks completed a 900-mile ride that raised over $100,000 for the Nemours Foundation in 2011. The ride took nine days and honored those that helped his daughter during her treatment for leukemia.

As senior vice president and general counsel, Sparks has responsibility for Nemours’s legal department, auditing, compliance, and government relations. He has served as its lead counsel for almost sixteen years.

Sparks takes an active role in Nemours’s mission and in seeing the families and children that Nemours serves. Once a week, he travels to the company’s Delaware or Orlando locations to interact with those hospitals.

“Seeing the kids makes the job less of a job and more of a mission,” he says. “It reminds me of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, and how very important the work is. Service to others brings joy to my life.”

The footprint of the company’s service has grown since he joined the organization. Nemours has its roots at its principal location, the Alfred I duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware. Over time, Nemours has grown throughout the states of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Florida.

In addition to its Wilmington hospital, it also operates large, subspecialty Florida clinics in Jacksonville, Pensacola, and Orlando. In 2012, Nemours opened its second stand-alone children’s hospital, the Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando.

As the organization grew geographically—in terms of both numbers and complexity—Sparks saw a need for staff growth and started to build an in-house legal team. “Because the organization was not accustomed to the legal function, building a legal team required that we demonstrate value to the enterprise,” he says.

In addition to his work as general counsel, Sparks has provided leadership and guidance in the launch of the organization’s community-volunteer program, Nemours Cares. The program, known as Nemours Cares Day, brings together nearly 500 employees, families, and friends from across the communities the organization serves to participate in community-service projects in all Nemours locations.

For Sparks, the charitable work and passion for Nemours’s mission doesn’t stop there. In 2011, Sparks undertook “Steve’s Ride for Nemours,” in which he completed a nine-day, 900-mile bike ride in honor of those that helped treat his daughter during her illness. The journey started at Alfred I duPont’s Jacksonville, Florida, home and ended at duPont’s home in Delaware, raising over $100,000 for the Nemours Foundation.

Sparks also serves on several boards that are relevant to his mission. One board on which he serves is Give Kids the World, an organization that fulfills the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses and their families from around the world seeking to visit the theme parks in Orlando—at no cost to them. Additionally, he is a board member of HEAL, a Jacksonville-based autism organization, and the North Florida alumni board for Duke University. Providing himself for such service, he says, is an important part of his happiness.

“I love what I do,” Sparks says. “Part of the reason for that is that I work for a healthcare organization that prides itself on service, being all about the kids, and on being completely patient-centered.”

Nemours’s dedication to providing care to patients and families when and how they need it provides another unique element for Sparks. “We treat each child as if they were our own,” he explains.

As for the company, Sparks says his hope is that Nemours continues to grow as he continues to narrow the gap between its actual impact and potential impact. He has always contended that Nemours has near-unlimited potential to better the lives of children.

Reaching those heights will take time, but Sparks is espousing upon his company and peers a habit of spending time wisely.