Summer’s end is bittersweet for me. It is not just the long days, the sun, and the inevitable back to school but it is saying goodbye to the remarkable students that we are privileged to work with all summer long through the youth leadership organization I work with. These students are beyond inspiring and we give them the skills to change the world and it is amazing to see what they can do.
The other day I was looking into other organizations that do similar work and I came across the most remarkable story about a young man named Craig Kielburger and his older brother Marc. Craig, at the age of 12 saw a news story about a young man his age, that changed his life, ignited a fire within and sparked a generation of youth to give back.
That moment was the beginning of the nonprofit Free the Children, whose mission was to free children and families of poverty and exploitation but that was simply the beginning of a remarkable journey and story. Free the Children grew and expanded into ME to WE, the WE Movement and a remarkable organization that empowers youth to change the world.
More than twenty years later, their vision and scope has expanded into empowering youth at home, connecting them with global and social causes, partnering with schools, service oriented travel programs for youth and families, along with a social enterprise that provides products that make an impact with their everyday consumer decisions.
These two brothers, used a spark to ignite a flame of service that has inspired hundreds of thousands of youth to be the change. In Craig’s words,” Over the years, we’ve discovered that it’s far more important to reach as many people as possible-especially our youth-empower them with the knowledge that it’s not up to anyone else, it’s up to them to make a difference.”
Sharing is caring, if you are so moved or inspired, we would love you to pass the torch and inspire another.
Like all good fairy tales, it begins with once upon a time…there was a beautiful woman named Jennifer Hull and her heart was so huge that she not only adopted one child but created a non-profit to help hundreds more sick children at children’s hospitals around Los Angeles. Jennifer and I have known each other for a number of years, and last week we not only sat down together to catch up, but my son and I were invited to help Jennifer, her daughter Josie, and best friend Sienna, with their incredible cause called Once Upon a Room. A non-profit organization that decorates rooms for children who have long stays in the hospital.
Rather than me continuing this fairy tale, I think the conversation tells this story the best.
Charity Matters: Give us a little back round on you and Josie?
A little history about Josie and I…I am the very proud, adoptive mother of Josie. Josie and her sister, Teresa, were born in Guatemala and were conjoined at the head. They came to the US at 9 months old. At 1 years old they underwent surgery done by a 50 person medical team to separate them. After 23 hours in the operating room our two beautiful girls were rolled out in 2 separate beds.
We were granted a miracle that day and have spent everyday since trying to do everything in our power to better the girls’ lives and those around us. As one can imagine our medical journey did not end at separation surgery. There have been countless hospital stays with over 30 surgeries combined and hours upon hours of physical therapy.
We know from first hand experience when you are in an environment that makes you happy and calm healing is easier to achieve. It was important to Josie and I to help others in medical situations feel better. The main portion of our program is to decorate hospital rooms for pediatric patients going through active medical treatment.
Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start your non-profit?
Jennifer Hull: Once Upon a Room has a tag line…Every child has a story. My sweet daughter, Josie spends so much time in the hospital. Every time we are inpatient, I noticed her spirits were lifted when we would bring in items that were ours and set up a mini “house” like atmosphere. We have had the pleasure of meeting other patients and families over the years and when we would visit them we would bring something to brighten their room we could see the joyous effect it had.
We wanted to expand our reach and really transform the hospital setting into a personalized, happy environment. Josie and I got excited about the possibility of spreading joy to others in the hospital. We knew we needed to do this. We wanted to serve others and this was such a perfect fit for us.
Charity Matters: Who along the way has helped you make this journey happen?
Jennifer Hull: Siena Dancsecs is a huge contributor to our success and is one of Josie’s best friends and has been through so many ups and downs with Josie medically. Siena’s passion to help others started to light on fire. At 11 years old she called to tell me that we the organization should be named Once Upon a Room. She said that our mission should be to serve pediatric patients in and out of the hospital that were in active medical treatment.
Siena says, “Through my friendship with Josie I wanted to do more. We do what we do because we can see the long-term impact it makes. I remember getting asked to go to the hospital for the first time. I honestly had no idea what to expect, what I would see or what I would hear. Normally when I think about a hospital I think about all of the needles, medicine and doctors. We get to see a different side of it. When we walk into those rooms we get to brighten this patient’s room with what they like. It becomes all about them in a different way. It’s not all about their disease or injury; it’s about them as a person. That’s what makes it so special. Getting to make these patient’s days just a little bit brighter. And truly it affects not only their environment but also everyone around them. It brings this glow to their surroundings, helping them start fighting a little harder.”
Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?
Jennifer Hull: This is an easy question…making other people happy!! As Josie says, “We do this to make other kids happy. I know how hard it is to be in the hospital so I want to help them too.”
We can’t change the medical outcome but we can change how they feel when they are going through this journey. You can’t believe how rewarding it feels to know that you put your heart and soul into doing something for someone else that hopefully makes a difference in his or her life. Every room we do we put ourselves into their shoes for a moment. We do our best to anticipate what they would want or what would bring joy to them.
When we get the theme of the room we try to do the best we can to make it perfect for them. You would think after doing over 500 plus rooms it would be redundant but instead we try to make each room better and more personalized. Making someone else happy fuels us. Hopefully that person is the patient, but also the family. Being in the hospital is so stressful for the whole family.
We are one of the few people who walk into the room and can concentrate on the person not the medical diagnosis. We get to recognize them and their interests. The family gets to be reminded of theperson not the condition.
The other part that fuels us is the excitement that it brings to the medical staff. You almost see them invigorated. It is so much fun to watch them and their reactions when they are watching a room reveal for one of their patients that they clearly have compassion for. It is a gift to us to make to make others feel special.
Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?
Jennifer Hull: There is an interesting thing that happens in our group. It isn’t only the patients and families that we affect. Many times it is the volunteers or vendors that we see affected by our work. It is so much fun to go into Target and the cashiers are all excited to see what rooms we are shopping for. It is so rewarding to see the change in our volunteers when they come to help.
Witnessing the love and compassion that kids and teens give to patients is one of the best gifts in my life. We don’t give them enough freedom or opportunities to give to others in a meaningful way. Giving them a positive experience serving others at young age while hopefully help them remember that feeling when they are adults and they will find a cause that they can make an impact giving to as adults.
Charity Matters: Last question before we end this fairy tale, tell us what success you have had?
Jennifer Hull: Our success isn’t measurable. Success for us is determined by the about of love and compassion we are able to spread to our patients, families, staff, volunteers and vendors. It is the ability to spread hope and happiness. Our success is based on helping and serving others.
Now that is happily ever after….if ever I have heard one.
As Father’s Day is quickly approaching, I begin thinking about my dad. A wonderful man, with a big heart, heart disease and a history of heart problems. My Dad and I still spin together at least twice a week and he will be 78 this fall. However, a few years back, while in spin class my Dad’s heart stopped, while he was on his spin bike. Technically he died. Thankfully, due to the gym’s quick response and having a defibrillator (think the paddles on medical tv shows) close by, his life was saved.
The other day I came across the story of Michael Salem and it reminded me so much of my dad. Mike Salem was also a great guy beloved by all and in 2002 he was playing golf with friends when his heart stopped. Sadly, there was not a defibrillator near by and he did not survive. His company and co-workers wanted to do something in his memory, the result is The Mikey Network. A non-profit whose mission is promote healthy heart living and to provide public access defibrillators, which they call Mikeys.
Since 2003 the Mikey Network has raised millions of dollars, trained thousands on how to use defibrillators, placed hundreds of defibrillators in schools, camps, police cars and in public transit. More importantly than that, they have saved over 15 lives (that they know of) and counting, all because of one man’s legacy.
We never know when our time is up, that is something I have witnessed with both my parents. As a result, everyday when I exit my spin class with my Dad, I say loudly (in front of the entire class), “I love you Dad.” It just takes one moment to change everything….and it is people like Hugh Heron and The Mikey Network who have changed that moment for so many families.
I can no longer take moments for granted….and the beat goes on…