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Omaha Magazine

Koley Jessen President Aids in the Fight to Cure Cystic Fibrosis

Jul 29, 2021 04:24PM ● By Chris Bowling
Alex Wolfe in blue suit at conference table

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

When Alex Wolf started searching for a way to give back, he had some stipulations.

The attorney, who started at the Omaha firm Koley Jessen in 2008, wanted to know what he was doing would make a difference in people’s lives.

He found that sense of purpose at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a national research and advocacy organization that has played a large part in turning the genetic disorder from an obscure ailment to a well-known issue.

“That was really impressive to me,” said Wolf, now the president and managing shareholder of Koley Jessen, as well as a board member of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Nebraska chapter. “Obviously there’s a ton of worthy causes out there. But to see you actually making progress against the disease? That was encouraging.”

Wolf’s journey helping to fight cystic fibrosis started with the same question many ask—what is it?

According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, it is a genetic disorder that affects the cells that create mucus, sweat, and digestive juices. The fluids become thick and sticky, then plug the tubes and passageways. 

Around the time he started his law career, one of Wolf’s friends found out their child had this genetic disorder. Suddenly a persistent cough wasn’t a routine doctor’s visit for Wolf’s friends.

“The things that you start to read are pretty scary, especially back at that time when their son would have been born,” Wolf said. “Life expectancies were not great. The realities of what living with that disease looks like was pretty scary.”

In 1962, children with cystic fibrosis only lived until about age 10. By 2008, it was up to 27 years. Now, people with cystic fibrosis live, on average, about 37 years, with many living much longer.

Extending people’s lives is exactly what drew in Wolf, and it stands at the center of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s work, said Laurent Quenaud, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s senior director, donor and volunteer engagement.

The organization was founded in 1955 to try and find space in the race for new cures, medicines, and research. Because cystic fibrosis affects a small population, about 30,000 Americans today, they had to think through how they spend money.

“The foundation started taking donations to companies and said, ‘What if we give you the seed money to start the research? What if we give you that and then you begin research on drugs to help more people,’” Quenaud said. “And that very smart strategy has paid off.”

The grassroots strategy has led to several new treatments that have expanded life expectancies and quality of life.

Wolf thinks that’s what makes his effort so worthwhile. For years he’s organized annual dinners and events that raise about $1 million locally, and $100 million nationwide. 

As a part of the committee for the Rimington Trophy, an award for the best center in college football, he helped raise money for cystic fibrosis with the help of the Boomer Esiason Foundation. For about a decade, he’s also brought Omaha’s philanthropic community together for Hope Brews, an event centered around craft beer. That raised about $200,000 alone in 2019, Wolf said.

Volunteers like Wolf are invaluable, said Quenaud, who was the executive director of the Nebraska chapter until June. For his staff of five, raising $1 million alone would have been insurmountable. When people like Wolf get involved, however, the names in their contact books multiply, the message starts to spread, and then the possibilities
start expanding.

“When Alex Wolf comes knocking on someone’s door and says, ‘I’d like you to consider making a donation to the CF foundation,’ people listen,” Quenaud said. “Because he’s so well-liked and humble and kind. They know he wouldn’t be asking if it weren’t important.”

Visit cff.org/Nebraska for more information.

This article originally appeared in the August/September issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.