The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has underscored that volunteering in vulnerable communities is more important than ever, but it has also made it more challenging, and not just because of the practicalities of physical distancing for safety. Giving back can easily get lost in the shuffle as everyone tries to navigate this new normal while balancing changing personal and professional responsibilities with ever-changing news and concerns.
However, for three steadfast, selfless, and service-minded Penn Presbyterian Medical Center staff, promoting the health and wellness of their neighbors in need remains top-priority. Rather than putting their projects on hold, they have used funds they earned from the Penn Medicine CAREs Grant program to make a difference, demonstrating that even in the toughest times, there are always people ready to extend a helping hand.
Sharing Smiles Wherever They’re Needed Most
Sometimes, all someone needs to carry them through a difficult day is a smile from a stranger. That’s something Kara Lemanowicz lived by, and after her unexpected passing at only 14 years old, it has become a mission for her family as they sought to find a way to celebrate her memory. Since 2016, Paige Powick, a medical assistant and Kara’s cousin, has been involved in Smiles from Kara (SFK), a non-profit that pledges to provide help wherever it is most needed.
Though SFK initially focused on providing opportunities for underprivileged children and children with disabilities to participate in sports, enjoy extracurricular activities, and pursue higher education, it has grown in scope. For example, Powick’s CAREs grant will partially cover the medical bills for a 23-year old who was recently diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. In 2020 alone, SFK has dispersed funds to more than two dozen local and national organizations, GoFundMe accounts, and individuals struggling with food and housing insecurity — all amid a pandemic that has thrown many into an unexpected financial crisis. Every year, the foundation also hosts a 5K run/walk on Kara’s birthday (including a virtual event this year), and the proceeds are funneled into scholarships for graduating seniors at Kara’s high school.
“In dark times, and especially during a pandemic, it’s important to spread light. Kara knew that even at 14, so our goal is to keep the positivity going,” Powick said. “It doesn’t take anything to be kind. Whether you offer financial support to a family who really needs help or give a compliment to someone who needs encouragement, anyone can make a difference.”
Preparing Children for the School Year and Beyond
Debra Mosley, RN, a nurse on Cupp 4 South, is committed to providing underserved children with the opportunities they need to grow into healthy, strong, and motivated individuals — so much so that she recently received her third CAREs grant supporting her work.
Mosley teaches dance classes for more than 30 local children, teens, and adults at the Feet of Faith Dance Company, a non-profit that she founded in West Philadelphia in 2016. The fall season will begin in mid-September, and while she has readied her studio for social distancing, it’s not just masks that her pupils will need. To ensure no child is left out because COVID-19 has spread their families thin financially, she plans to use half of her funding to cover tuition costs so any student who wants to express themselves, practice teamwork, and build self-esteem can do so. Because the school year has also started, she decided to use the other half of the grant to organize a backpack and supply giveaway.
“Many parents really struggle to afford things that a lot of us take for granted,” Mosley said, noting that she empathizes with kids who wish for shiny new school supplies or access to the arts, but are left out because they’re typically too expensive. “Many schools are staying remote right now, but as they move to in-person learning later in the year, it’ll be really important for these children to be set up for success with access to all of the resources they need.” After all, navigating this new world of hybrid education will be challenging enough without students being left unprepared.
Providing Cancer Patients with Creative Coping Tools
Penn Medicine has taken careful steps to ensure its facilities are safe for patients who need in-person medical care. Even so, for cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, their concerns about spending another long day in the hospital amid a pandemic can make the process even tougher. In an effort to ease their anxiety and offer a welcome distraction, Amy Schwartz, MHA, director of PPMC’s Cancer Service Line, developed a proposal to create a therapeutic arts initiative for infusion patients.
Research has shown that relaxing art activities — drawing, coloring, crafting, and even other creative activities like journaling and assembling puzzles — can have a significant positive impact on cancer patients’ mental health, reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression and boosting their mood while they undergo treatment. Furthermore, creative expression can also help them work through difficult emotions associated with their diagnosis. Schwartz sent out a preliminary survey to measure patients’ interest in this type of programming, and the response was overwhelmingly favorable. The initiative is due to roll out later this year, and Schwartz intends to continue monitoring patients’ interest with the aim of implementing a long-term program.
“In light of everything going on with COVID-19, it’s more important than ever to be able to provide a bit of extra support and offer something that can take patient’s minds off things,” Schwartz said. “While the pandemic has thrown a bit of a wrench in our plans, I’m excited to get creative with how we can best use the CAREs grant funding, and I’m confident that we will see our patient satisfaction scores improve.”
How are you staying connected with your community? Apply for a Penn Medicine CAREs grant to fund your own outreach opportunity at PennMedicine.org/Community.