PROFILE: One cool cat: Peter Anella balances Princeton, a nonprofit for cancer patients and a clothing company
Published 4:02 pm Monday, April 4, 2022
By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor
With three to six months to live, Pete Anella was searching for signs of hope as he sat inside the MD Anderson Cancer Center. Then, it came.
In that moment, Pete was pleasantly surprised when a woman walked in with toboggans for each of the patients who sat alongside him during a chemotherapy session. That two-minute interaction then changed everything.
Pete went on to live a year longer than expected before passing away on Dec. 5, 2019, but that two minutes stuck with him the rest of his life. As he took his turn getting a toboggan, a dark and lonely place was quickly filled with joy. As he beamed with a grin from ear-to-ear in his lively fashion, he realized someone cared. Someone was thinking about him and wanted to put a smile on his face.
More importantly, the story of that moment stuck with his son Peter.
“Cancer is like a 9-5 job,” Peter says, thinking of his dad’s battle. “You go, get tests, get chemo, talk with doctors, but that two minutes was kind of a break. He talked about it for so long that I started to think about it a lot after he passed away.”
With that in mind, Peter set out to make his dad proud and with a new way to bring joy to those battling cancer: The Cool Cat Club.
As a junior at Oak Mountain High School, Peterwas fast-tracking a new non-profit that would change the lives of cancer patients, with his dad serving as inspiration as the Original Cool Cat. But before it even helped others, its first impact was actually to help Peter cope with losing his hero.
“My dad was definitely my biggest role model. He taught me every value I have,” Peter says. “He always said, ‘The only limitations are the ones you put on yourself.’ You really can do whatever you put your mind to. If you really work at it, you can do it. He came from nothing and built a great life and family. I hold that true and live by that. He always said it’s nice to be nice. He taught me just to be nice to everyone.”
Since he was diagnosed with a laryngeal cancer for the first time in 2015, Pete stayed positive and determined to live his life normally, and he even went into remission for a short time. But in 2018, Pete was re-diagnosed, and this time the cancer was in his lungs. He ended up with an aggressive squamous cell lung carcinoma that is a very difficult cancer to treat. Soon after he was given only three to six months to live.
“Being the kind of guy he was, he ended up keeping everyone positive and upbeat when it was him that really needed it,” Peter says. “Even at the grocery store, he knew everybody and was still cracking jokes with all of them. That’s who he was.”
And in that time, Peter got to spend some of the best moments with his dad.
“Mindset and attitude are everything. There is a quote I read in the midst of all this happening that said, ‘Unhappiness doesn’t come from the situation; it comes from the attitude about the situation,’” Peter says. “That really turned everything on its head for me. This challenge that appeared in our family’s lives seemed only bad because that was the easiest thing to look at. In life, there’s two sides to everything—a good one and a bad one. I decided to look at the good one.”
Pete ended up living 15 more months, opening space for their family to travel and make memories together. Rather than head down a dark path at that point, Peter channeled his energy into something that not only make his dad proud but help others in the process.
Join the club
Watching a livestream from inside the Grandview Cancer Center, a woman receiving one of her chemotherapy treatments couldn’t resist standing up and walking outside to be a part of what was happening.
Just outside stood Peter and his three friends who helped start The Cool Cat Club. It was their first care package drop off at the cancer center, and the woman was overwhelmed with joy.
“Some of the nurses and doctors had already come out, but while we were sitting out there, a patient receiving chemo came outside and told us how excited she was because it was so needed,” Peter says. “Just from day one, it has been shocking. We knew we were creating something that was useful and needed.”
The day was Aug. 8, 2020. As it turns out, Peter, who was also in the running for valedictorian of his senior class that same year and was running an Italian clothing company he had started, the COVID-19 struck and quarantine gave him the time he needed to bring the club to life.
How did he come up with the means to kick start it? Selling old childhood toys. From there, he and his partners, including best friend Hall Welborn, started calling hospitals to see if they could even get in.
One phone call to the head of oncology at Grandview Medical Center is all it took. “She is hardly ever in her office, but she just happened to be there when we called,” Peter says. “
And it certainly wasn’t going to be a one-time project—they had big dreams of delivering care packages and helping cancer patients financially. From there, the group finalized all necessary legal work to become a 501(c)(3) and had a logo made, all building on young entrepreneur’s know-how. Not surprisingly, it raised more than $50,000 in a year.
“For me personally, I became passionate about it very, very quickly, seeing the impact it makes on these cancer patients’ lives, seeing these people struggling and putting a smile on their faces,” Hall says. “Whenever we go to the hospitals, the doctors get so excited and say, ‘Oh my gosh, The Cool Cat Club is here.’ They see young people caring. That’s all the payment we need for something like this. It is so fulfilling. People talk about work, and if you don’t love what you’re doing, why do it.? This is something I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Standing in front 397 of his fellow classmates inside Heardmont Stadium on May 26, 2021, Peter started talking, and jaws throughout the audience dropped. Through his words, the Oak Mountain valedictorian took people on a ride through a lesson tied to each year of high school. He walked people through his clothing company, his dad dying of cancer, his newfound charity and his ultimate lesson of accomplishing whatever you put your mind to.
“I’ve always been a business guy before I even knew what an entrepreneur was,” Peter says. “Even in first grade, I remember dressing up in a suit and being a businessman.”
That was the goal Peter set for himself, and while he read books about it for a while, he eventually dove in and was a living example of making it happen.
The hardest thing to do in life is find what you’re passionate about, Hall says. But not for Peter. He always knew what he was passionate about.
Hall also points out that creating a nonprofit at the young age they did made the group as a whole grow up faster and learn who they were. “I got a lot out of it, and I matured a lot,” he says. “It started in middle of pandemic, then we went back to school and I’m sitting in algebra class like, ‘Why am I doing algebra right now when I can be doing something that makes a difference?’”
Today, Peter is a student Princeton University, and is if he didn’t already have enough on his plate, he has joined the rugby team, entrepreneurship club, the real estate club and is running for office—all while taking classes at one of the most prestigious universities in the country.
But one of his top priorities remains carrying on his dad’s legacy with The Cool Cat Club no matter where he is with the home base remaining in Birmingham. “I didn’t realize how many people were affected by cancer. Whether it’s family, a friend or someone else, everyone has experienced it in some way,” Peter says. “So it really is special to be able to make a difference. That’s the whole thing of The Cool Cat Club is making them smile a bit more, and we don’t plan on ever giving that up.”
Learn more about The Cool Cat Club at thecoolcatclub.org.