Our Special Friends

We are thrilled to welcome our JDRF 2017 Children’s Congress celebrity advocates! These ten adults have all triumphed over the burden of type 1 diabetes (T1D) by living full, successful lives and achieving their biggest, boldest dreams. They serve as role models for Children’s Congress delegates—and all kids with T1D. They will participate in various Children’s Congress events, including the Delegate Photos, Town Hall, Corporate Partner Luncheon, Chalk Talks and Senate Diabetes Hearing.

Cristina Alesci

Television Correspondent and Journalist

Cristina Alesci is a television and digital correspondent for CNN. She covers business, finance and economic policy. Her stories unravel the complexities of Wall Street, explain the impact of economic policy and highlight potential conflicts of interest at the highest levels of government.

Over the course of her career, she has also interviewed some of the biggest names in business, including Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz, JP Morgan chief executive Jamie Dimon and J.Crew’s Mickey Drexler. Cristina joined CNN from Bloomberg Television, where her coverage of high profile
deals often made headlines.

Cristina received a Masters of Arts in Journalism with honors from the City University of New York where she currently serves on the school’s foundation board. She was diagnosed with T1D as an adult and has been determined to overcome the challenges with the disease and spread the message that diabetes does not have to stop you from living a full, robust life.

Austin Basis


With coveted lifetime membership in the Actors Studio, multifaceted actor Austin Basis has become one of the hottest stars of primetime television, landing roles in CW’s award-winning series Beauty and the Beast, as well as Life Unexpected, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Supernatural and How to Get Away with Murder. This year, Austin is starring in the Golden Globe-nominated series, Casual.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Austin always knew he wanted to be in the limelight. Captivated by the theater in college, he received a Master of Fine Arts from the Actor’s Studio Drama School in NYC.

Austin was diagnosed with T1D when he was eight years old. Throughout his career, he has worked hard to balance T1D with long hours on the set. He tests his blood sugar at least seven times a day and wears an insulin pump to manage diabetes. Living with T1D from such a young age has inspired Austin to become a strong T1D advocate. As a JDRF Ambassador, he demonstrates an unwavering commitment to raising awareness and funding for research.

Brec Bassinger


Brec Bassinger is best known for her starring role as Bella Dawson on Nickelodeon’s Bella and the Bulldogs. Born and raised in Saginaw, TX, Brec began her career in entertainment after competing in talent shows and beauty pageants, winning the world title in the Our Little Miss Pageant at the age of ten. When she turned fourteen, she ventured on to Hollywood where she quickly landed a recurring role in the television series, The Haunted Hathaways. Since then, she has appeared in School of Rock, The Goldbergs and Code Black. Brec has also starred in the Nickelodeon film Liar,
Liar, Vampire and recently filmed the new movie, Status Update, which is coming to theaters in 2017.

Brec was diagnosed with T1D when she was eight years old. When she’s not in front of the camera filming, she’s lending her voice and dedicating her time to T1D advocacy. From JDRF One Walk events to galas and media interviews, Brec uses every platform to raise awareness and inspire the T1D community.

Brandon Denson

Football Player, Trainer and Educator

Brandon Denson was a star linebacker for Michigan State University. He walked on to the team as a freshman, and during his sophomore year earned a full scholarship for his remaining collegiate years. After graduating, Brandon played for three years in the Canadian Football League. He is currently Assistant Defensive Coordinator at Detroit Voyageur College Prep and a personal trainer and mentor at Dogs 4 Life. He recently competed on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior.

Brandon was diagnosed with T1D in 2004 during his senior year of high school. Living with T1D as a professional athlete has motivated him to show others how to overcome the challenges associated with the disease. He continues to raise awareness and inspire the T1D community as he speaks all over North America about T1D, his experiences as a collegiate and professional athlete and how to tackle T1D in his everyday life.

Max Domi

Professional Hockey Player

Max Domi is one the NHL’s most exciting rising superstars. The son of legendary NHL player Tie Domi, Max began playing hockey at an early age. Drafted twelfth overall by the Arizona Coyotes in 2013, Max has already established an impressive resume and carved out his own identity with his remarkable speed and skills on the ice. At age 22, his career highlights include an Ontario Hockey League Championship, an Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament Gold Medal and a World Juniors Championship Gold Medal.

Max was diagnosed with T1D at age 12. Initially, he was concerned about being prohibited from playing hockey, however, he sought inspiration from role models like, Bobby Clarke, who has T1D and became a successful NHL hockey player. Today, Max uses a pump and has employed a diabetic-alert service dog to help him manage T1D. Max has a reputation for being a leader on and off the ice, demonstrating his passion and dedication to advocacy efforts and the T1D community.

Nicole Johnson

Miss America 1999, Journalist and Author

Nicole Johnson, DrPH, MPH, MA, who was diagnosed with T1D in 1993, has professionally supported diabetes advocacy and research for more than 20 years, helping to raise more than $27 million. She is most well known for her time as Miss America 1999. Nicole is also known for her engagement in diabetes research. At the University of South Florida, she served as executive director of Bringing Science Home, a $7 million diabetes research program. She is also chairman of the Diabetes Empowerment Foundation, where she created the Students with Diabetes, Young Adults with Diabetes, and Diabetes Moms programs.

As a member of JDRF’s International Board of Directors, Nicole has served on the Executive, Advocacy and Research Committees and as chair of the T1D Voices Council. A winner of the Telly Award for her work on dLife, Nicole is also a columnist for numerous diabetes magazines and author of seven books, including Young Adult Type 1 Diabetes Realities and What to Do When Your Partner Has Diabetes: A Survival Guide.

Charlie Kimball

Race and IndyCar Driver

Charlie Kimball is an open-wheel race car driver with Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing in the Verizon IndyCar® Series with a history of breaking the mold. He is the first and only licensed driver with diabetes in the history of IndyCar to win a race at the most elite level of the series. He is also the first driver with T1D to qualify for, compete at and lead laps at the Indianapolis 500™.

Charlie, who began racing go-karts at age nine, deferred admission to Stanford University to pursue his dream of racing. In 2007, he was forced to abandon his racing program mid-season, when he was diagnosed with T1D at age 22. With great determination, he worked with his doctor and team on a plan that included creative precautionary tools to help him manage T1D while driving. Six months later, he was back behind the wheel, claiming a podium finish.

Off the track, Charlie is committed to raising T1D awareness. In 2012, he received the prestigious Jefferson Award, which is like the Nobel Prize for community and public service.

Aaron J. Kowalski, Ph.D.

JDRF Chief Mission Officer and Scientist

Aaron J. Kowalski, Ph.D., is JDRF’s Chief Mission Officer. He is an internationally recognized expert in the area of diabetes technologies and has been a leader of JDRF’s Artificial Pancreas Research Project, a multimillion-dollar initiative that began in 2005 to accelerate the progress toward automated insulin-delivery systems. His ability to translate science into easily understandable concepts has made him a voice for diabetes research in the popular media appearing on dLife, Fox Business, NPR and many other outlets; and is often quoted in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and People magazine.

In 1977, Aaron’s brother Stephen was diagnosed with T1D at age three. Almost seven years later in 1984, Aaron was also diagnosed at the age of 13. It is their collective experience over the past 30-plus years that provide Aaron’s daily motivation to find a cure and eradicate the disease.

Paul Sparks


Paul Sparks is best known for his roles in the Primetime Emmy-nominated political drama series, House of Cards, and the HBO award-winning series, Boardwalk Empire, which has earned him two SAG awards. He also stars in the HBO series, The Night Of and the Starz hit series, The Girlfriend Experience. Paul’s distinguished work in theater has earned him five Drama Desk Award nominations. He has also appeared in Deception, Afterschool and The Missing Person.

Born and raised in Lawton, OK, Paul went to Oklahoma State University to study chemistry but transferred to the NYU Tisch School of the Arts to pursue acting, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. He is married to actress Annie Parisse and they have two children.

Paul was diagnosed with T1D in 1999, at age 28. Shortly after his diagnosis, he was inspired to start running and joined JDRF’s New York City Marathon team to help raise money for research. When he’s not in front of the camera filming, he dedicates his time to T1D advocacy.

Cory Vaughn

Professional Baseball Player

Cory Vaughn is a professional baseball player who has played in the major and minor leagues. As the son of MLB star Greg Vaughn, the goal of playing in the majors came to him naturally. He attended San Diego State University and was drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft by
the New York Mets where he spent six seasons, reaching the Triple-A affiliate and the Las Vegas 51s. While with the Mets, he hit .246 with 75 HR and 75 SB. In 2016, he played for the New Jersey Jackals of the Canadian-American Association, hitting .256 with 9 HR, 57 RBIs, and 13 SB; and led the team in doubles, 27, and outfield assists, 6. This year, Cory joined the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs.

Cory was diagnosed with T1D at age 11. He thought his opportunity to play baseball was over when he was first diagnosed, but support and encouragement from his parents and diabetes care team helped to reassure him that he would still pursue all of his goals.