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Cancer The Good Fight

This Dog-sitting Charity Keeps Families Whole Through Illness

The love of a pet is the best medicine, which is why PACT for Animals keeps pets happy and safe while their owners are in the hospital.

When Adrienne and Jim Walsh found out their child would be born with a rare birth defect, they made arrangements immediately. Surgery was needed before their daughter was born and their child would require several follow up procedures. Still, they wondered about their four-legged child at home.

What were they going to do with Lincoln, their Jack Russell terrier? Their daughter, Autumn, was born with congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH). She was enrolled in a trial program at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, which was far from the Walsh’s home.

To be near their daughter, they applied and moved into Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore. That posed a new problem. Ronald McDonald House didn’t take pets. Traveling back-and-forth to the hospital every day meant they wouldn’t be home to walk, feed, or care for Lincoln. Adrienne and Jim longed to be around their newborn. Jim spent time at the hospital and eventually had to return to his office.

Lincoln the Jack Russell Terrier posing with a reassuring note to his owners.

Hiring a pet sitter was out of the question because they would be gone for several months. “Asking a friend, neighbor, or family member to watch your dog for several weeks or months is a big ask,” Adrienne said.

Adrienne googled “temporary foster care” and PACT for Animals came up. PACT differs from other foster pet care programs. Most animal welfare nonprofits use volunteer foster families to socialize shelter pets with the goal of adopting them out. PACT fosters are temporary. The expectation is that the pets will return to their families.

PACT for Animals was started in 2010 by Buzz Miller, a retired lawyer who spent his free time volunteering at local animal shelters. Miller, who is based outside of Philadelphia, was troubled after witnessing military personnel forced to give up their pets, often to kill shelters. “I would hear about military personnel giving up their dogs and cats when they were deployed,” he said. “I remember seeing these big burly guys sitting on the floors of the shelters crying their eyes out because they had to leave and had no alternative place for their pets.”

“I remember seeing these big burly guys sitting on the floors of the shelters crying their eyes out because they had to leave and had no alternative place for their pets.”

PACT’s military program places pets in temporary foster homes. Once a soldier’s tour of duty is complete and he’s back home, he’s reunited with his pet. The military program has grown from serving people in eastern PA to the rest of the country. The nonprofit doesn’t charge to place pets in foster homes.  Instead, pet owners are asked to pay the foster families for any necessary veterinary care so the foster doesn’t have to deal with that expense. They also don’t accept overly aggressive dogs, and expects all cats and dogs in the program to be spayed or neutered.

With the success of PACT’s military program, Miller thought he’d branch out to include people and families who spend a lot of time in hospitals. “Unless it hits us at home, we don’t think about how much time a person spends in a hospital,” said Amy Ricigliano, PACT for Animals’ executive director.

Buzz Miller, founder of PACT for Animals.

According to Ricigliano, PACT has 200 foster homes in the tri-state PA area and another 200 throughout the country.  PACT for Animals has a small staff and mainly depends on volunteers. “If we get an application from someone who wants to foster or someone who needs to place their pet in a temporary foster, we have a list of trusted volunteers who’ll check out the pets, the owners, the fosters, and the foster homes,” she said.

Participants in the program have found that PACT does more than place pets in temporary homes. “Relationships develop,” Adrienne said. “Lincoln’s foster, Linda Post, sends us photos of Lincoln surrounded by toys. From the photos, texts, emails, and occasional calls, I could tell Lincoln is well cared for.”

Linda was originally going to foster a military pet. “But then I heard that Adrienne and Jim’s child, Autumn, was enrolled in a program here at Johns Hopkins,” she said. Linda, who works as an oncology research nurse at Johns Hopkins, had a big dog named Jackson, who recently died. She wanted another dog, but wasn’t ready to adopt. “Fostering seemed like the perfect solution,” she said. She’s developed a real connection to Lincoln.

She hopes and expects that once Autumn goes home, they’ll keep in touch. “They have a pet sitter for life,” Linda said.

Christopher and Sharron Derrer also find watching dogs for PACT incredibly rewarding. They fostered two dachshunds, Sweetpea and Rembrandt. The dogs’ owners, Julie and Max Courtney, were looking after their daughter who had foot surgery. It was a perfect fit.

Sweetpea and Rembrandt, two more foster dogs cared for by PACT volunteers.

Sharron grew up with dachshunds, and the couple even had a pair until one died. The remaining dog, Heidi, became lonely. Christopher would occasionally check in on his webcam and see her howling. He started looking for solutions.

“One of my co-workers introduced me to PACT,” he said. “She fostered cats through the program. When we found out that a family needed temporary accommodations for their two dachshunds, we applied.”

Heidi was happy to spend time with Rembrandt and Sweetpea, 10-year-old dachshunds. “Chris and Sharron are a huge blessing to us,” Julie said.

They understand that our pets are part of the family and PACT works to keep families together

As big a blessing as it was to the Derrers, PACT was an an equally big help to Julie and Max Courtney, who recently moved to Florida, only to discover their daughter needed leg surgery in Philadelphia. “We were far away from our immediate families and friends who helped us in the past,” says Julie. “We’d be gone for over a month and didn’t know what to do with our dogs. We’ve had them for 10 years. They’re part of our family. Not knowing what we were going to do with them was overwhelming.”

The Shriners Hospital in PA, where the surgery was scheduled, sent Julie a flyer about PACT. Julie and Max stayed at Ronald McDonald House in Camden, NJ, while the Derrers took care of their dogs. “I can’t believe how kind and helpful they were to total strangers,” she said.

Since the surgery, the Courtneys and Derrers have stayed in touch, sharing photos and emails about Sweetpea and Rembrandt.

“It was great that they found someone who’s as crazy about dachshunds as we are,” Julie said. “PACT works hard to find the right match. They understand that our pets are part of the family and PACT works to keep families together.”

Creative Commons photo at top by Dorian Wallender.

Chronic Illness The Good Fight

How This Non-Profit Gets The World’s Hottest Artists To Give Hospitals Their Art

For over 16 years, artists such as Jeff Koons, Frank Stella, Terry Richardson and more have been working with RxArt to make hospitals as beautiful as museums.

Few would mistake a hospital for a fine art museum. If there is art hanging on a hospital’s walls, it usually comes in the form of tacked-up motivational posters, sun-bleached photographs, generic pastoral prints, and–if you’re lucky–an ’80s-era motivational mural.

Still, though the art hanging in your local may be lackluster, few hospitals let their walls go totally bare. It raises a real question: what is hospital art for? Why is it there? Is it only meant to be a momentary diversion from the tedium and passive dread of being sick? Or can it serve some greater purpose?

Diane Brown, president of RxArt.

Diane Brown, president of RxArt.

Diane Brown, president of RxArt, definitely thinks so. For the last sixteen years, Diane has devoted herself to the singular calling of replacing the sad stock prints in hospitals with museum-quality installations from some of world’s hottest artists. Terry Richardson, Jeff Koons, Frank Stella, and many, many more have all contributed art to her cause.

Long before she founded RxArt, Diane had set up her life at the intersection of medicine and the arts. In her earliest days, she worked in cancer research, while simultaneously pursuing at master’s in art history. Diane soon dropped out–“I just didn’t think I was being taught to think critically”–but devoted the next several years to self-education. By 1976, she had left medicine entirely to start her first art gallery in Washington D.C.; seven years later, she moved to New York, and ran her own gallery there for almost a decade, before going to work as a personal curator for one of the Big Apple’s most serious art collectors.

Despite her experience, Diane never really thought much about hospital art until she had to undergo a CAT scan. “It frightened me badly,” says Diane, remembering how trapped and intimidated she felt under the shadow of the alien-seeming medical machinery. “I wanted to get out of the room; I was terrified.” Strapped in a gurney with an IV in her arm, it was impossible to run, but Diane soon found another way to escape: through art. “I imagined a beautiful artwork on the ceiling by British artist Matthew Ritchie, lush with intricate iconography.”

Jeff Koons painted the CAT scan room at Advocate's Hospital with monkeys, hearts, and dogs.

Jeff Koons painted the CAT scan room at Advocate’s Hospital with monkeys, hearts, and dogs.

Her heart stopped racing as she became totally enraptured by this illusory painting. By the time the CAT scan was over, Diane knew she had to do this for other people, upgrading the sad and dingy art in hospitals with better works capable of capturing the imaginations of the sick and the scared.

“I started asking curators and artists I knew: is there a way I can put museum-quality art in hospitals while still paying artists but not charging hospitals?” she remembers. “Eventually, I met one philanthropist, who told me to try it, and RxArt was born.”

Over the past decade and a half years, RxArt has installed exhibitions in literally dozens of hospitals around the country, including Rockefeller University Hospital, Beth Israel Medical Center, Mount Sinai Hospital, San Francisco General, and more. Although in its earlier incarnation, the org hung framed art in corridors and patient rooms, RxArt now focuses on site-specific installations in pediatric hospitals. Together with RxArt, Diane works to pair children’s hospitals with artists to give dreary spaces a fun and colorful upgrade, whether that’s asking Kenny Scharff to tag an entire stairwell in the Pediatric and Adolescent Psychiatric Units at Kings County Hospital, or tasking Dan Colen to freeze frame an entire 25,000 square foot recreation room in explosive rainbow-colored confetti.

Terry Richardson's photographs hang on the walls of King's County hospitals.

Terry Richardson’s photographs hang on the walls of King’s County hospitals.

One particularly poignant example of what RxArt is trying to achieve is from American fashion and portrait photographer Terry Richardson. Richardson, who has shot intimate portraits of everyone from President Obama to Lady Gaga, was asked by RxArt to contribute photos for a pediatrics hallway at Kings County Hospital (a frequent RxArt partner). “Before Terry came in, this hallway had prints of Monet’s Haystacks hanging,” recalls Diane. “I remember touring it with a doctor, who pointed to them, and said to me: ‘These are city kids… what do they know about Provence?’”

Later, Diane would discover that part of the reason such generic art hung in this hallway at Kings County was because the children had a tendency to destroy anything that went up there. No individual work survived very long. (“I wish they’d told me that before Terry came in,” rues Diane.) Regardless, when Richardson came along, he replaced the sad Haystacks prints with photos the kids at Kings County could relate to: photos of other every day kids, smiling and giving a thumbs up while looking straight into the camera.

It’s not just an affirming message; it’s a reminder to the kids at Kings County that there’s an entire world outside of the hospital that cares about them. An easy thing for sick people to lose sight of, which might go along way to explaining why Richardson’s photos are still hanging unmolested years later. “It’s the first thing they’ve been able to hang on the walls that hasn’t been destroyed,” marvels Diane.

Kenny Scharff tags a hallway at Kings County Hospital

Kenny Scharff tags a hallway at Kings County Hospital

This goes to the heart of why RxArt does what it does, and the related question: what is hospital art for? Yes, hospital art is for distracting the scared, the bored, the lonesome, or the person in pain, but so are televisions, magazines, and hospital clowns. What makes putting putting fine contemporary art on the walls of a hospital uniquely important is that it reaffirms to the people inside that a beautiful world awaits them, full of people who care and want them to get healthy.

I passionately believe that your whole life becomes richer when you love art.

And if RxArt can also help a new generation of kids fall in love with contemporary art? All the better, says Diane. “I passionately believe that your whole life becomes richer when you love art,” she says. “You become so much more aware; you observe life differently, and see things sculpturally. Falling in love changed everything for me. I just want to do that for other people.”

Genetic & Congenital Diseases The Good Fight

The Mom With A Mission To Help Families With Down Syndrome

Roughly one in every 700 babies born in the United States has Down Syndrome. This mom is determined to help those children reach their full potential.

In 2002, when Nancy Gianni gave birth to her youngest child GiGi, the medical team treated her like life as she knew it was over. “They put me in a private room and kept sending in the clergy,” Gianni says. “‘Is she dying; is there something more you’re not telling me?’ I asked. No one would look me in the eye anymore.”

GiGi was born with two holes in her heart and Down syndrome; both were a surprise. “It wasn’t until I took her home that I really got to understand her and see that she was so much more than this diagnosis,” Gianni says. “When you have a typical kid, they don’t tell you how they might have a learning disability or they might get cancer, but when you have a kid with Down [syndrome], you only hear the negative.”

Gianni, who lives in Barrington, Illinois, left a job in ad sales when her oldest son was born. After GiGi’s birth, Gianni concocted an idea to challenge people’s perceptions of Down syndrome and give families a place to see their child’s full potential.

Nancy Gianni and her daughter, GiGi.

Gianni envisioned a place where children with Down syndrome could get educational and therapeutic programs tailored to their needs. A place where families with Down syndrome children would feel welcomed. Skeptics suggested she focus on her own child, but Gianni persisted. “I could have put all my energy into her but that’s not going change the world’s perception,” she says. “We needed to change perception for all individuals with Down syndrome.”

In fact, Gianni says the idea had been gestating from the moment GiGi was conceived. Although she did not know her child would have Down syndrome, Gianni found herself taking an early stand during pregnancy when other people used the R-word. “I remember being so excited and feeling like he or she was already making me a better person, making me stand up for people,” she says.

She opened the first location of GiGi’s Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Centers in Hoffman Estates, Illinois in 2003 with an all-volunteer staff. Setting up shop wasn’t easy but fortunately Gianni found others who believed in her mission.

Initially, explaining her plan for a center for people with Down syndrome seemed to set off alarm bells for landlords and others. Gianni called her insurance agent and he was out of town, so she spoke to someone else. “I want to open this place for people with special needs and have different programs for them,” she told him. Two seconds later, he said, “I’ve got a 16-year old with Down syndrome; will there be something there for him?” He made sure she got the insurance she needed. 

GiGi’s Playhouse offers families around the country a Down syndrome friendly place for activity and support.

Each year, GiGi’s Playhouse offers 50,000 sessions of completely free programs for people of all ages, whether they have a diagnosis or not. For instance, Language, Music N’ Our Peeps (LMNOP) classes use music and dance to teach infants and families basic sign language.

Melissa Ciraulo, a mother of three living in the suburbs of Chicago, took her three-year-old son Peter to this class. “Since attending LMNOP, he’s using more words, learned to sign more and trying to verbalize,” she says. “Whether it makes to someone else, it makes sense to us. He’s started him to understand what is going to be expected of him in preschool.” She’s also taken her three kids to open play and attended some of the seminars for parents.

School-age kids and teens can participate in cooking, club, karate, drama troupe or literacy training, while young adults in GiGi University complete an eight-week program learning confidence, career skills and wellness. They then go on to intern at GiGi’s Playhouse Store, Hugs + Mugs.  

For GiGi Gianni, “the literacy and speech programs are my favorite, but I love the GiGi Fit workouts and hanging out with my friends.” Fitness programs are especially important for people with Down syndrome since they’re often born with low muscle tone (hypotonia). Because of that, GiGi makes sure to stay in shape by taking dance classes, as well as being a member of her school’s cheerleader squad. 

Nancy Gianni says being an ambassador for GiGi’s Playhouse has given her daughter tremendous self-assurance. On a recent trip to a Playhouse opening in Raleigh, North Carolina, Gianni noticed that GiGi “walks through the airport with such confidence. She just gave a speech [that she’d written] in front of a thousand people.”

GiGi Chianni aims to be a leader and role model, not just to kids with Down syndrome, but to everyone.

GiGi Gianni says of her ambassador role: “I want to be a leader and help people and to inspire people to be better.”

Ciraulo believes GiGi’s Playhouse has had a positive impact on her entire family. “To be able to go somewhere and be surrounded with people who’ve gone through the same things as well as a lot of the same joys, it’s heart-warming and a sense of relief,” she says.

GiGi’s Playhouse now has 31 locations across the United States and Mexico, with hundreds more communities asking for their own Playhouse. Gianni hopes to have one in every major metro market by 2021 and plans to offer some online programming for families outside those areas.

“As soon as we opened that [first] one, we had all these inquiries,” Gianni says. To help GiGi’s scale, Gianni added paid employees and had an operating agreement and licensing agreement created for new locations, which operate as their own individual LLC under the same nonprofit. “They’re responsible for their own fundraising, but we give them all the tools that they need,” Gianni says.

GiGi’s Playhouses are entirely donor-supported. “We don’t use any government or state funding,” Gianni explains. “It’s not dependable. It would be devastating to have to pull programs. You can’t take this away from a family once they have it.”

Gianni says this donor-based model has helped make GiGi’s Playhouse sustainable. “I think we can equate our longevity to that from the beginning,” she says. “I’ve always had to be scrappy.”

Unlike the grave predictions of the medical team that delivered GiGi, Gianni and her daughter have thrived in their roles as chief belief officer and ambassador, respectively. “If you look at my life, it looks pretty good,” Gianni says.