"Reach Our Children" Reorganizes
Kirkwood-based children's cancer charity battles negative publicity over finances
September 08, 2006
|"Nobody ran away. Everyone stayed committed to the good that this organization does."
– Renee Kirkiewicz
Reach our Children
photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)|
Reach Our Children, a Kirkwood-based charity to help families of children with cancer, was caught in a swirl of adverse publicity earlier this year over questionable financial operations.
The charity reportedly took in more than $4.5 million in cash contributions in 2004. However, as much as $3 million found its way to a marketing firm owned by the wife of the executive director.
The conflict-of-interest led to the board's demand for the resignation of the executive director, Kirkwood native David J. Lovell. Lovell had previous experience in charitable work with the National Leadership Foundation (NLF), a group that worked with college students to inspire Christian church leaders.
"This has all been disappointing and certainly a wake-up call," said board chair of Reach Our Children, Will Bealke of Des Peres. "A lot of numbers have been thrown around as to what happened financially.
"When the board came to realize that this conflict of interest existed and began to look at what happened, it was clear that a resignation was in order," said Bealke. "Absolutely, the newly-constituted board will serve as a watchdog and a lot of oversight measures have been put into place."
Among the new developments for the locally-based, national charity:
- An independent audit and the installation of expenditure controls above $500.
- Prohibition of any direct mail "sweepstakes" campaigns for raising funds, heavily criticized by the Better Business Bureau (BBB).
- Cuts in payroll and overhead expenses with more reliance on volunteer effort and internships.
- Outreach to Friends of Kids with Cancer to re-establish positive and lasting relationships under a new executive director Renee Kirkiewicz.
"As someone with a child with cancer, I've learned how to make a positive out of a negative," said Bealke. "I would like to think that I can bring that same approach to Reach Our Children.
"We have reorganized and we have re-focused our mission," continued Bealke. "It's a mission that no other organization in the country, to my knowledge, seems to be addressing."
|Reach Our Children brought in public relations specailist Laura Slay to help with its turnaround.
photo by Diana Linsely (click for larger version)|
Unique Family Mission
"A decision was made in March, after a series of setbacks, to stay in business," said Kirkiewicz. "Nobody ran away. Everyone stayed committed to the good that this organization does, and that is to help families with their daily living expenses as they try to cope with the demands put on them when a child has cancer.
"It may not be as tangible as what some other charities do," Kirkiewicz added. "It's not as exciting as sending sick children to camp or giving them a trip somewhere. All those things are fine, but someone needs to think about and help with the basics."
The basics, explained Kirkiewicz, include helping families with rent, mortgages, car repairs, as well as expenses incurred in taking children from outlying areas for cancer treatments at city hospitals. She said that two-income households often become one-income households when cancer strikes children. The financial strain is immediate.
According to new organization guidelines instituted, Kirkiewicz said the maximum award for a family is $500. All award requests must go through a social worker, usually associated with a hospital. Financial aid is given for documented expenses or checks are made out to specific vendors, not to families.
"We'd love to do more than $500 for each case," said Kirkiewicz. "We know that the needs are great. Fortunately, in our last round of applications, we did not have to turn anybody down. We have a board that considers all of the applications on a first-come, first served basis.
"Obviously $500 does not sound like a lot of money," said Kirkiewicz. "But what the social workers tell us is that we are crucial in crisis situations and we give hope. They say that every little bit helps."
From small offices in a business center at 12166 Old Big Bend Road, Reach My Children has a national reach. About 70 percent of its disbursements are now national with 30 percent devoted to cases in the St. Louis region.
The charity has a strong local reputation due to past benefits conducted by local businesses, as well as golf tournament fundraisers at local country clubs. Local sports and media figures, from Ande Benes and Joe Buck to Roger Wehrli and Bob Costas, also have enlisted in the efforts for Reach Our Children.
Getting A New Start
Later this year the charity Reach Our Children will officially become Foundation for Children with Cancer. Laura Slay, a public relations specialist brought on to help with the charity's turnaround, said the name change should not be seen as a ploy to run away from a tattered past.
"The fact is the board decided not to change the name right away, so that people did not think there was a plan to cover anything up," said Slay. "We want to be upfront and totally transparent.
"We were put on the BBB's list of charity groups with a cautionary note to givers," explained Slay. "We invited the BBB to come in and take a close look at what we have been doing to correct things."
This week, Slay was able to report that the BBB had taken down the warnings about the charity on its Web site. Slay said other charities across the U.S. have endured scandal, graft and bad publicity, and Reach Our Children has contacted them for advice on how to work through a potentially organization-killing crisis.
"They have told us to stay active, and to bring on a new diligence and awareness to all your activities," said Slay. "They say you can come up stronger from a bad experience. That is what we plan to do."
Even as Reach Our Children undergoes personnel changes and the adoption of a new name, it is sticking with some tried-and-true programs that have helped kids with cancer.
One of those programs is "Hats On Day" in which school kids wear hats and raise money for youngsters with cancer. Wearing hats promotes a welcoming and supportive school environment for kids fighting cancer.
Kirkiewicz said the success of the program in 2006 has resulted in disbursements of $76,000 to pediatric cancer families thus far this year, with an additional $45,000 in such help to be distributed before year's end.