We had the opportunity to chat with Judith Factor, Executive Director of Friends of Karen. This organization provides emotional, financial and advocacy support for children with a life-threatening illness and their families, in order to help keep them strong, functioning and able to cope.
Q: Tell us a little bit about how Friends of Karen was founded.
A: It’s literally a “good neighbor” story. A woman named Sheila Petersen wanted to sustain her close friends through the devastating illness of their daughter Karen. She wanted to relieve the family of the burden of Karen’s care and give them the gift of time to enjoy each other as much as possible. Karen had spent almost a year in the hospital and all she wanted was to be home. Sheila rallied the community to help pay for the round-the-clock nursing care that Karen required. The response was immediate, and Karen was able to come home and be surrounded by her friends and family.
After Karen died in 1978, Sheila founded Friends of Karen to provide support to more families caring for a child with cancer or another life-threatening illness. Since then, we’ve helped nearly 14,000 children. No family should have to face the turmoil of their child’s illness alone.
Q: What is your organization’s mission? How do you help families?
Friends of Karen believes that families can maintain a sense of balance and stability even in the midst of a health crisis. This belief fuels everything we do for our families to ensure they get the emotional, financial and advocacy support they so desperately need while their child is in treatment for several months or even several years.
A: For example, our sibling support specialists help sisters or brothers of the ill child cope better with the intense changes to their family life. We have Spanish-speaking social workers so that Spanish-speaking parents completely understand what hospital staff are explaining. We can provide a supermarket gift card to help a family put food on the table. We help with basic living and illness-related expenses, such as expensive parking fees at the hospital and rent or utilities, which become overwhelming when a parent has to leave work to stay with their ill child. Our social workers negotiate to have an immense hospital bill reduced, and will connect a family to other agencies or government programs to ensure they receive all available care and help.
These are just a few examples. Each family is different, and has an experienced Friends of Karen social worker addressing their individual needs. Last year we helped 1,625 children and their families. This year alone we will cover $1.6 million in family expenses. The mother of a boy with leukemia told us, “When our son was ill there were so many things that were frightening and unknown. But one thing we knew for sure: Friends of Karen was always there for us and would help get us through it all. Friends of Karen was our lifeline.” We are the only organization that helps a family to navigate the journey of their child’s life-threatening illness throughout their child’s illness, from diagnosis through treatment.
Q: Who is eligible to receive support from Friends of Karen?
A: We serve families in 22 counties of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, regardless of race, religion, cultural heritage or country of origin, who are caring for a child who is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, is a citizen or legal resident of the U.S., and is under age 21. If a family is interested in how we can help them, they should contact our NYC office at (212) 308-1378 x.3 and speak with a staff member.
Q: With the Holiday Season quickly approaching, how can people help Friends of Karen children?
A: What a wonderful question! Every child looks forward to the holidays, but when parents are struggling to care for a very ill child there’s no time for shopping or even thinking about gifts. Our Holiday Adopt-A-Family program makes sure our children have something to smile about. It works like this: We ask parents to send us their children’s wish list, then we match a caring person like you with a child and you “adopt” them by fulfilling part or all of their wish list. We do this for our ill children and their well siblings.
We include gift-wrapping materials when we send your gifts to the child’s parents and even a personal card for the child. Last year, a host of generous “elves” made 933 children very happy! You can watch a short video for insight on why this program is so important. Feel free to email Denise Tredwell if you’re interested in helping – we may have 1,000 children this year!
Q: Other than the Holiday Adopt-A-Family Program, what other ways are there to get involved?
A: There are as many possibilities as you can think up. You can host an event – whether it’s a bake sale or a black-tie dinner – as a fundraiser. You can have a Halloween party and ask your guests to bring a toy to donate – we send birthday gifts to dozens of ill children and their siblings every month. You can ride in our annual “Journey of the Heart” bike tour or be part of the “Walk/Run for Friends of Karen” at the Long Island Marathon or join our Young Professionals Leadership committee. You can have a dress-down day at your workplace. You can join our Monthly Visionary Club or our Circle of Friends. Like us on Facebook and share the posts. Our website gives you more options – or you can create one!
Q: Do you have upcoming events that people can participate in?
A: We always have upcoming fun events! They are listed on our website at www.friendsofkaren.org and in our monthly e-newsletter (subscribe on our Facebook page). Right now they range from a gala evening at Tribeca Rooftop to an Italian dinner party.
Since Friends of Karen provides all our services at no cost to our families, they depend on contributions. They are a registered 501(c)(3) charity, so all contributions are 100% tax-deductible. And they love their volunteers! They are always available to speak with anyone about Friends of Karen, feel free to call them at (914) 617-4041.Friends of Karen, Pan Am Equities, PanAm