By Susan Carl
“We are an organization that wishes we didn’t have to exist,” Friends of Karen Executive Director, John Murphy, said in a speech delivered to a crowd gathered in the University Center Ballroom. Many in attendance had green ribbons (the organization’s adopted symbol of hope) pinned on their shirts.
Who does Friends of Karen help? “Any family in the New York metropolitan area with a child up to 21 years of age who has a terminal or life-threatening illness,” according to the organization’s mission statement. Along with financial support the organization helps individuals and their families who need guidance or just someone with whom to talk.
The music in the UC Ballroom set an upbeat mood with “The Joe Rock Band” along with the local band, OUTLET, and a DJ. A silent auction was held and included clothing from Paris to a Tiger Woods autographed picture. The numerous raffle prizes had many winners adding a little over $3,000 to the fundraisers’ thermometer. For Coordinator Denise Wind in partnership with Hal Eisenberg, the event was “being able to utilize the truest form of social work skills and creatively help others.” Ronda Ryan, another Friends of Karen social worker, agreed, “It really isn’t one person, but teamwork.”
Crystal Szewczyk-Perez, now an Adelphi student, is among those who have been helped by Friends of Karen and she spoke at the fundraiser. Crystal, who now attends Adelphi’s Honors College and hopes to become a veterinarian, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease (cancer of the limp nodes) a month after her sixteenth birthday. She said that Friends of Karen helped her family by removing the pressure of bills. “I don’t take anything for granted,” Crystal said. “It’s the little things in life that make me happy.” She added that she makes sure “not to sweat the small stuff” like a bad hair day because after all “you could have no hair.”
Crystal told her story with her cousin standing at the side of the stage for moral support., “I am a living example of the kindness and support Friends of Karen has provided,” she continued. Then with a slight shake in her voice, she said, “Without their help, I don’t know where I would be.”
Representatives for Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy and County Executive Tom Gulotta spoke a few words. The support was campus-wide from fraternities, sororities, HILLEL (a religious group), Circle K (community service organization), the NAACP and some Alumni. Unfortunately, the Director of Undergraduate Social Work, Professor Julian Rivera had a heart attack the week before the event and was in the hospital recovering from surgery. Although he could not be present, there was a moment of silence dedicated to his speedy recovery. Fred Kipperman, a member of the board of Sigma Alpha Mu, a fraternity, said, “It is meaningful that student leaders have led the way in making a difference in the lives of so many.” Warren Zysman, Sigma Alpha Mu President said, “It’s great seeing people supporting children and it’s the best event I’ve been to at Adelphi.”
Ryan, the Friends of Karen social worker, told a story about working with the family of a two-year-old named Ciera, who died from a brain tumor. She said that it was a phone call she received from Ciera’s father that reminded her what being a social worker means. He asked her, “Have you heard of the show, ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’?” “Why yes, of course” Ryan told him. Then, he said to her, “For my family, Friends of Karen is all three life-lines.”
Friends of Karen came about when Karen McInnes, a 16-year-old girl with Lafora’s disease (myoclonic epilepsy) wanted to spend the time she had left at home. Sheila Peterson, a friend of the family, raised the money to send Karen home. Even though Karen died in 1978, the left over funds for Karen were used to help another sick child and so “Friends of Karen” was created bearing Karen’s name. According to Ryan, Peterson “obviously had a huge soft spot for children” and “was dynamic and driven to make this organization a success,” which she did until her death (in January 1990 in a car accident).
The organization also has a quilt and for every 12- inches of cloth, the “Friends of Karen” quilt tells a story of one child. In an interview, Murphy said, “The children we help are deprived of a normal life, their childhood is taken away from them.” But with the funds raised, families can be helped so parents can as Peterson once said, “have more time to love.”