“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.
Our team at KWF could spend days reiterating the impact of our FUN-only mission. We could describe how the vacation home you donated changed the lives of a Cleveland family, encouraging them to spend more time together as a whole. Or how the $60 donation you made last year went toward the FUN MONEY provided to a special recipient who got to cross off that bucket-list zip-lining experience. Or perhaps you decided to host an event that raised enough money to send a recipient (who decided to stop treatment) on a final trip. And maybe that last vacation inspired her to start chemo again and keep LIVING…true story.
We could sit here and tell you close to 2,000 stories with similar impact. Although in this season of giving, we’d like for our recipients to tell you themselves. We can’t thank our givers enough for helping us change the lives of countless women & families LIVING with breast cancer.
Read below to hear the KWF mission & vision in action that could not be possible without your generosity.
“We had an amazing trip!! Everything from the rented car to the road trip and the weather was just perfect. We were able to catch the last warm and sunny days of the summer, as well as the first days of crisp autumn weather with changing colors on the trees. It was breathtaking !!
The house we stayed at was very nice and cozy, and it felt like home right away. We prepared most of our meals together there and enjoyed sitting at the long table, having great conversations while eating prepared food. My husband said a few times that it looked like we were in a Hallmark movie setting: eating dinner by candlelight and just being so happy together.
We spent our days hiking, kayaking, biking in Mackinac Island, playing golf and apple picking. Most days ended by the bonfire, where we talked and listened to my husband play guitar and sing for us. It was truly a beautiful time and I will forever be thankful for the generosity of the house donors, the Hayden family, as well as the KWF.
Last week marked a year since my diagnosis and I couldn’t be happier to have spent it with my family in a beautiful home set among trees and on a lake.
This trip gave me a chance to reflect on my life over the past year, with its hard times and trials. It also made me count my blessings and it truly gave me a jump start to this coming year, with its promises and surprises.
Please know that I will forever remember your kind gesture and always feel thankful.
Sincerely, Gosia Mills”
(Walloon Lake Vacation, October 2022)
“I had a great Saturday!! The rain didn’t stop us and then a Rainbow came out. I want to thank the Karen Wellington Foundation for a wonderful Girls Night Out!
The Pedal Wagon was great. We visited Cinema OT and Copper and Flame. We had to stop at Sugar 513 as well for my sweet tooth.
Then we danced and sang at Tokyo Kitty. Chile I give the professional artists their props! I was out of breath!
I'm heading back to work this week and this was a great way to get back in the groove. Thanks to my Radiation Oncologist RN and a couple of friends for nominating me for this. I feel so loved and appreciated!
My plan is to share this love with others! No one should endure this fight alone!!”
-Alexandria (Girls Night Out, August 2022)
“I think we really grew closer as a family on this trip and were able to take a deep breath and let go of what we had been through this past year…
As for me, sitting on the dock with a book, admiring the beauty of the water, scenery, stars, flowers and farms was the most beautiful experience. It still feels so surreal!!! From the bottom of my heart…thank you so much.”
-Nathalie (Northern Michigan Vacation, August 2022)
“Our trip was WONDERFUL. Joe’s house was incredible—a short drive to the beach, perfect bike riding area, and the driveway made a great spot for many games of corn hole. My mom still randomly says, “I miss the Kiawah shower.”
The trip was just what we needed to regroup after treatment and before surgery. From the beach to the house, it was perfect. We played Uno or Sorry every evening, often ending up in tears from laughing so hard.
We had photos taken and loved how they turned out. A good way to commemorate the trip. Thank you again for the trip and all the work you put into it!”
-Amy S (Kiawah Vacation, July 2022)