Every year, April seems to be a milestone month for KWF. It is of course important to us as a foundation, but it holds a special significance for those who knew and loved Karen Wellington. April marks the symbolic beginning of spring, which makes Karen’s April 1st birthday a crucial piece to it all. As her daughter, I could go on with stories and little moments that spoke to who she was. I could tell you about her unwavering kindness to strangers or her laugh that seemed to ricochet off the walls and into the bellies of those around her. But today, you won’t be hearing from me. You see, my mom had far too many friends to count, but she had a handful of best friends who were and still very much are instrumental in both of our lives.
So today, to kick off April & all the beauty that lies within, you’ll hear from them…
Although the official start of spring is in March, April has always felt like its a true beginning to me. A month of new beginnings with blossoming flowers and trees everywhere. In yoga lingo, April is like a great big heart opener! So, in my mind, it is very appropriate that Karen was born on April 1st. She was someone with a great big heart that was always open.
Karen and I met through Eastside Moms and around that same time our daughters started dance class together. Our mom’s group had organized a weekend getaway to Chicago around that same time. I was planning on going, very excited to get away and spend time with two of my closest friends. Karen asked me about it at the first dance class and when she realized that there were only three in our room, her response was, “Oh good, I am going with you guys!” I was a little taken back since we had just met and my other two friends hadn’t even met her at all. Karen, being Karen, insisted on driving on the trip. After picking up the last of us, she threw the car in reverse, gunned it and slammed straight into a telephone pole. Three out of the four of us were very certain that our weekend getaway had ended before it even started. Without hesitation and without even getting out to see how bad the damage was (it was pretty bad) Karen straightened out the car, laughed and said, “Oh well!” and we were on our way.
I guess if you are born on April fool’s day, you learn early in life to laugh at yourself, and Karen surely did that. The four of us spent the entire weekend having fun, laughing through many shenanigans, and becoming fast friends. For Karen and me that weekend jumpstarted an amazing friendship between us and then soon to follow, our daughters.
With April 1st being Karen’s birthday, it of course reminds me of how important birthdays were to her. Not her own, but everyone else’s around her. Karen was always the first one to organize the celebration and always the one to bake the birthday cake. And it wasn’t just your average cake…it was four layers, made from scratch and beautifully decorated with flowers, tulle, anything she could find to make it special. I had no idea how much time went into it until I made it for her 40th birthday. (Years prior, I had to swear to her that I would never substitute any healthy ingredients…applesauce for butter, etc. before she finally entrusted me with her recipe.) She made it all the time for all her family and friends, put her heart into it so they would feel special on their special day.
So many heart opening memories with Karen, maybe that is why I love April so much.
Some of us are lucky enough to have a special person in their life that is your “person”. The ONE you run to for anything. Your “ride or die” friend. I was blessed that Karen was that person to me.
We met at the ripe old age of 3 but it was like we already knew each other. Even at age 3 she walked down a long street so she could find “those little girls” living down the road. My mom asked her what her mother’s name was and Karen said “Mommy”. My Dad called her “Sugar” and she promptly answered “that is not my name” and tilted her head to the side and looked up at him with those big beautiful eyes. No fear. She had an agenda. She wanted to play with the girls. And that was the start of Karen becoming “my person”.
We did everything together……play dates, school, soccer, family holidays, graduations, weddings, baby showers, kids…..she was “my person”. She knew where I came from and she knew what I needed at any given moment just by looking at me or hearing my voice over the phone. Karen supported and encouraged my dreams, made me laugh harder than anyone I’ve ever met and held me as I sobbed when she told me she had breast cancer. After she dried my tears she said “and that is the last time we do that.” I agreed. She wanted to LIVE and have FUN and cherish the moments she had left. And that is exactly what she did as I watched in amazement. She taught me so much about LIVING and I am so grateful for “my person.” Funny thing is, Karen made her friends all feel like they were that special person. She had that magical ability to be there in the moment and share her love unconditionally. I feel her on every gift delivery, every recipient hug and every gracious thank you that this Foundation receives. “My Person” is KWF’s person and her legacy lives on.
Karen…one of a kind friend…there for me for anything and everything, all the time, everyday. So much to say and too little space so as we approach KG16, I wanted to share a special memory of FUN (and there were A LOT of those!).
To Angeline and Robby:
This is one of my favorite pics of your mom and one of my favorite memories… we planned lots of events together - as room moms at the Villa, on committees for nonprofits, in UD’s studio, for birthdays, Christmases, on vacations and just for FUN! This one happened to be a party I was planning for work and your mom was ALL IN! Lucky me to have a pal to jump in and help!
First, we searched for a venue. Everything seemed to have been “done before.” (Keep in mind this was almost 30 years ago!) We were intent on finding someplace other than a hotel so we scoured a bunch of spots around town and voila! We found Peterloon Estate…so beautiful. Not quite big enough and quite a steep entry fee, BUT, if we added a tent (more $$$) we could fit everyone. It would be perfect for a summer soirée! We loved it and, as you may recall, money was often no object to your mom, so she convinced me that I could persuade those with the “powers of the purse” to go for it.
As part of the “pre-planning,” it was most critical to find just the right band. As we all know, music is key to a great party! This is where we shined! From bar to bar, we traveled to find just the right band. Many cocktails were had and we had to dance a lot to be sure they were good enough! At last we found SOUL POCKET! The very band that will regale us with the best music in town at KG16! Of course they were waaaayyy over budget, but your mom convinced me no one else would do! I really put my job on the line for this one ;)
That party was, by far, the best party the Firm ever had, thanks to your mom! Not only because of her part in planning, but because she was, of course, the LIFE OF THE PARTY and made sure every Partner had so much FUN that they wouldn’t care how much it cost!
Karen and I were quite a party planning team and regardless if it was a party of 400 or just our families, we liked to go “all out!” BTW, we loved going to parties too :)
I know your mom has had a guiding hand in the success of all of KWF’s FUN events ! You can feel her joie de vivre the minute you enter the room because it lives in you!
Cheers to KG16!
“I believe that self-care should be affordable and not viewed as a luxury, it is a must in our life’s journey.”
I sat down with Crystal Grace one rainy morning in February to discuss the impact her spa has had on our KWF Mission. I went in assuming I’d leave with a nice, simple story to share with our community. I quickly realized that Crystal is no simple woman and neither is her testimony.
Crystal is an esthetician and owner of Grace + Grit Spa as well as Cream + Sugar Coffeehouse in Cincinnati. She is a woman on a mission to cultivate community through healing. That sentiment is evident and seemingly seeps into every area of her life.
But just several years ago Crystal’s mornings looked vastly different than they do today. She wasn’t waking up early to open her shops, but rather to head into her 9 to 5 at Time Warner Cable where she thought she’d retire. Although, all that changed when Crystal noticed a coworker had uncharacteristically not shown up to work for three days. She found it in herself to go check on him at his home. Upon arrival, she discovered he had passed. In addition to the heartache of losing a friend, Crystal now became riddled with what she calls “the triple threat” - anxiety, depression and PTSD. For the first time in her life, she was at a standstill. But that’s when “God stepped in.”
After working with doctors to move through her triple threat, Crystal decided to lean into healing touch and self-care to find a remedy. This led her to her first-ever facial that sparked something in her she could’ve never imagined. “For the first time, I had an encounter with God that changed my life. I heard his voice saying this is how I want you to serve and showed me a vision of a spa,” notes Crystal.
Six weeks later, she quit her job of 20 years to answer that call. With grace and a whole lot of grit, Crystal started to build that haven for those who needed to heal just as she had. Through thick and thin and a global pandemic, Grace + Grit has stayed rooted in its mission to serve others through healing touch. Crystal and her team member, Sha-Kim (to whom she credits most of her work) don’t take a cent from cancer patients who show up on their doorstep. This wasn’t something KWF asked of them, in fact, they were already doing it when we arrived. This a testament to the altruistic nature of these women who’ve answered a call far bigger than creating a profitable business.
Crystal & Sha-Kim have welcomed our KWF Recipients with open arms, going above and beyond to care for our ladies when they need it most. Whether they’re providing healing massages & facials or graciously coming in on their off days to pour into our recipients, it’s clear that this is their vocation.
As our conversation came to a close, I asked Crystal what was next for Grace + Grit. We discussed a myriad of plans regarding growth and expansion for her mission. Although it was one dream that stuck with me the most. Crystal has a vision to craft and facilitate a city-wide self-care day for all women LIVING with cancer. A day to open the doors of local spas in town to love on cancer patients and their caregivers free of charge. Just one day to focus on their healing journey… hoping that it too can be the catalyst for life change to take place just as it had for her years prior.
Upon leaving, I reflected on a sentiment Crystal shared with me when I arrived. We discussed no matter one’s beliefs, we all have a calling in life. Sometimes it’s quite evident and other times the path isn’t so linear. Although for Crystal one thing will always ring true, the only reason she stands where she does today “is because of God’s Grace, but it took some grit to stand in his promise.”
Our KWF Emerging Leaders are the next generation of givers to guide and grow the vision of this foundation. They are a passionate group of young professionals eager to get involved, expand the mission and fuel the FUN for countless women & families LIVING with breast cancer. Below you’ll hear from a few of our Emerging Leaders on their personal why as to their reasons they’ve gotten involved and stayed connected with our KWF Community.
Two years ago, I heard Kent Wellington talk about the importance of "stopping your race" every once in a while to show women and families LIVING with breast cancer they aren't alone. Recipient deliveries are the best way I've found to do that. On paper, it may seem like stopping your race and delivering gifts to recipients is an act of selflessness; but the truth is, for every delivery you attend, you get much more than you give. You might give an hour of your day and a few bucks for balloons, but in return you get some of the best hugs this world has to offer, incredible stories from the bravest women and families you’ll ever meet, and a reminder that life is meant to be LIVED because even during the hardest times of your life, there is always plenty to be grateful for. With every gift we deliver at KWF we are putting FUN on the calendars of our recipients, and with every delivery they're putting FUN on ours as well.
Nearly seven years ago I volunteered at my first Hyde Park blast on behalf of the mission. Donning a pink KWF volunteer shirt I made my way through the crowd hawking beers and handing out wristbands to patrons in search of a cold draft beer. Two months later, wearing the same pink KWF volunteer shirt I sat down at a table with 30 of my fraternity brothers in a Skyline Chili cheese coney eating contest (I was a perennial runner-up). It was events like these and more that made me originally fall in love with the Karen Wellington Foundation. In my time after graduation, I fell in love all over again seeing the other sides of the Foundation as I began to accompany friends and strangers on deliveries of FUN. Each delivery I have been on has been unique – from drinking champagne to celebrate news of remission to wearing my favorite band’s t-shirt to deliver concert tickets - but what remains the same is the renewed passion for the KWF mission and enabling more women LIVING with cancer to experience this FUN and welcoming them into the KWF family.
I first joined the KWF family in 2020 when my mom was unfortunately diagnosed with stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer in March. It was an extremely fast-growing cancer and by the time my mom made it to the doctor, it had already spread to her liver. We were fortunate enough to receive a gift of a spa day from KWF in 2020, but we were unable to use this gift right away due to the harsh side effects of the progressive cancer and chemo.
In late July 2021, we were finally able to go to Mitchell’s Salon for our spa day! It was an amazing experience and it was a little break from the hard diagnosis. It was such a happy day because she did not get to experience any breaks or normal days due to her treatment. We did not stop smiling and laughing the whole time and it almost felt like things were back to normal. She passed away about a month later, so I am forever grateful to have had this wonderful, relaxing day with my mom!
After my mom passed away, my family and I were flooded with love and support from our new KWF family. We ended up creating the “Amy Weeks FUNd” of KWF in honor of my mom. I’ve met so many inspiring women and families who battled cancer or who lost a loved one to cancer. It was amazing to be surrounded by people who have been through a similar experience as us. Since then, we have attended countless impactful deliveries, hosted several KWF Events through our FUNd and given many gifts to families who are deserving of it. The memory I had with my mom at our KWF spa day is one I think of often because it was one of only the days when she was truly happy and was not worried about her diagnosis (and those days were very rare). I am so beyond happy that my family and I get to give other women and their families chances to make the same memories that I did with my mom.
2022 was another record year for KWF. You helped us give nearly 500 women (and families) a break from cancer. Now, we’re making room at KWF to grow and reach even more women in 2023.
KWF is pleased to announce Katie Elbisser as Executive Director (aka Chief Wrangler of all things FUN). Katie officially hopped on the KWF “energy bus” as the Director of Development and Communications in September of 2021. It all started during COVID when KWF needed help bringing our virtual events to life. KWF was lucky to have Katie (then Client Vision Director for AGAR) at the helm, spearheading two highly successful virtual events. She was hooked, and soon volunteered her expertise in brand activation to help us with the KWF rebrand. She was instrumental in launching the brand you see today.
Katie is passionate about creating memorable experiences while building community, two things KWF creates and multiplies. She’s done everything from running music festivals, and building craft beer brands to creating hyper-local community programs. Katie is perfectly positioned to step in and take KWF to the next level.
“Before KWF, I had reached a lot of personal goals, but I was on the search to find my personal purpose. That soon changed, when my fiancé (now husband) was diagnosed with kidney cancer and life as we knew it was sent into limbo. Throughout our cancer journey, we were fortunate enough to have two sets of friends offer up a weekend at their vacation home so that we could “get away” - one weekend being the weekend we found out about Nick’s cancer and the other being the week before his surgery. These times away were incredibly meaningful to our family. It’s given me personal insight into the impact of what KWF is all about. Not just FUN, but a real sense of wellbeing and connection - not just to the recipient, but to the entire family.”
“Katie came to us in 2020 when we needed a creative outside perspective. She continues to create space where innovative ideas can come to life,” said Alexia Zigoris, outgoing Executive Director. Alexia will continue to further the KWF mission from other seats on the bus. “We knew we needed someone who was firmly planted in the heart of what we do, and Katie embodies our GIVE FIRST mission. Katie gets it because she has lived it. ”
When founder and board chair, Kent Wellington (along with some friends and family) started the Karen Wellington Foundation for LIVING with Breast Cancer, in 2007 his thought was “Wouldn't it be cool to give one vacation each year to someone in the chemo chair like Karen once dreamed?” It seems that generosity is like compounding interest – keep pouring it in and it’ll multiply.
In 2017 the KWF board decided it was time to hire an Executive Director to build a dynamic, motivated and innovative team. The thought was, if we can give over 800 gifts of fun in 13 years, how much more could we do if we build out the team and welcome more people in. That’s about the time Alexia Zigoris arrived on the scene. With previous non-profit leadership experience, business acumen (learned from running her own businesses), a budding coaching business, and a little extra time on her hands, she began working with the Development Committee. “Alexia leveraged our core values, technology, flexibility and an increasingly diverse group of people to help us grow our reach exponentially. It has been a joy to watch and be a part of. I knew she was the one,” said Kent. Angeline Wellington (who also works for KWF) notes, “It’s incredible to see the growth this foundation has sustained over the past few years under Alexia’s leadership. At a time when KWF could’ve plummeted due to the pandemic, she helped raise us to new heights.” (Note: KWF plans to give its 2,000th gift of fun by the end of its 15th year.)
Alexia took the wheel in March of 2020 as Executive Director. “Looking back,” she says, “we had a clean slate. Despite a global pandemic, our leadership believed in us and gave us freedom to grow. We had no idea how much we could accomplish in just under 3 years. I am most proud of our team, how we work together, and how we stay focused on GIVING and GROWING. Cancer did not slow down and neither did we.”
Under Alexia’s leadership, the foundation has grown from 3 full-time staff to a team of 9. We dreamed up and produced Lemons to Lemonade boxes and our gifts expanded beyond vacations and spa days to offer a variety of FUN more customized to each woman’s needs. KWF income grew by 100%. Our DEI initiatives are off and running, and much more!
Katie may be taking the wheel, but Alexia will not be far away! She’ll move to an advisory role, supporting and coaching the team, working with our incredible recipient ambassador board and sharing the KWF mission. She plans to shift her focus to her existing executive coaching and consulting business, with a focus on mission-driven organizations (both for and non-profit). Stay in touch with Alexia here.
“We always said that our next Executive Director will be someone we love like a little sister. Katie is not only incredibly qualified and carries great energy, but she’s part of our family,” Alexia said.
Please join us in thanking and welcoming Alexia and Katie into new KWF roles while we keep working with a sense of urgency to reach even more women and families in 2023. We need your help to keep this bus in motion. Many of you know from firsthand experience: for families LIVING with cancer, there’s no time like the present.
There’s a scene from the 1983 dark classic the “Big Chill” where someone asks Chloe whether an old friend was happy. She replies, “I haven’t met that many happy people in my life, how do they act?”
Here’s how we’d answer that question based on our observations.
The happy people we know are bigger than themselves. Consistently.
For almost 20 years, our family has spent Saturday mornings around a bunch of volunteers who find ways to engage with (and pour into) high-spirited kids living in poverty. Despite the challenges and chaos, the volunteers are often the happiest people we see all week. The more they consistently show up for these kids, the happier and more relaxed they seem to get. Odd. You’d think they’d be stressed out by this bunch.
For more than 15 years, we’ve also witnessed KWF Volunteers engaging with (and pouring into) women and families LIVING with breast cancer. Despite the challenges and sadness that often fill this space, KWF volunteers and staff are often the happiest people we engage with. The more they show up for KWF families, the happier they seem to get. A little tired, sure (45 events in October alone), but full of joy. Also odd given the physical and emotional challenges of the group KWF serves.
But when we stop to think about it, it’s really not that odd.
We are all called to a life of service. Some answer that call periodically, and others embed it in the weekly rhythm of their lives. They consistently show up for others, and they live with a purpose bigger than themselves. Conversely, you'll find that the more we focus on ourselves, the less satisfied we become with what we get - we constantly yearn for "more". Because we believe "more" will make us "happy".
At KWF, we’re grateful to givers. But we know the best of them are not driven by our thanks. Or public recognition. They know this is where they belong and quietly take pride in their service.
Regardless, we want to thank them anyway.
*Thank you to those who understand the significance of showing up. Throughout the pandemic when there were not as many opportunities to express our gratitude publicly, you still kept SHOWING UP. Quietly. Consistently. Thank you for that.
* Thank you to those of you who find people and families LIVING with cancer and NOMINATE them for some fun. 500 or so of you have done that already in 2022. Sometimes you have to be creative. Sometimes you have to be aggressive and bold. And you have been.
* Thank you to those of you who have engaged with the KWF personal stories in our newsletters, social media, and events and have taken the time to SHARE the good news with others.
* Thank you to the CONNECTORS who help us build a bigger bridge between individuals who can share more with those living in the darkness and despair that accompanies cancer.
* Thank you to the DONORS of timeshares, frequent flyer miles, stock, tickets to concerts, sporting events and other financial gifts. A special thanks to the creators of our 30+ KWF FUNds. Those of you who have lost loved ones and keep their memories alive through a FUNd in their name. Or those families who have not lost someone, yet set up LIVING FUNds to do something different for others over the holidays or at other meaningful times.
* Thank you to the DREAMERS. The KWF board member who regularly enters a lottery for a dream home she can give to KWF. The small-town physician who not only gives us his vacation home 4-5 times a year, but he bought another one so he can give more. The little girl who lost her mother to breast cancer, but holds pink lemonade sales for her mother’s KWF FUNd.
Thanks to those of you who have chosen to GIVE more and engage more, rather than "GET more" in your lives. Thanks for being part of the FUN for others. So how do happy people act? That’s how.