Since 1985, the enCourage Kids Foundation (EKF), has helped humanize healthcare for children and their families by resourcing impact-driven pediatric programs and supporting the child life community. EKF is a significant philanthropic force that has invested more than 50 million dollars to help medically challenged kids, their families, and hospitals. Serving more than one million children annually, enCourage Kids is focused on making hospitals a better place to get better. Their programs offer relief from the constant burden of treatment, hospital stays, and doctor appointments, while also helping pediatric facilities to meet the unique needs of their patients.
EKF announced the hiring of Jean Butler as the new President & CEO taking the place of the late Michele Hall Duncan. Butler grew up in Northern New Jersey and is the daughter of physicians, so, healthcare is in her DNA. Butler received her undergraduate degree from the College of the Holy Cross and an MBA from Fordham University Gabelli School of Business. Butler is a senior executive with experience in the philanthropic sector as well as P&L and operational experience in the corporate sector (media and entertainment). Prior to joining EKF, Butler was the Chief Executive of the Toy Foundation, a 501(c)(3) children’s charity that is the philanthropic arm of the Toy Association, a 1,000+ member organization for North American producers, importers and retailers of toys, games, and children’s entertainment products.
Congratulations on being named the new President & CEO of EKF. “Thank you! I am honored and excited to be the new President & CEO of enCourage Kids Foundation. EKF’s mission, programs, legacy, ethos, and values struck an emotional chord with me and aligned perfectly with my prior experience in the children’s toy industry, so that made the decision easy. Purpose-driven work has always been important to me; I take great pride in this role and can’t wait to dig in!”
“I started my career on Wall Street, where I worked in Institutional Equity Sales, before realizing that I needed a bit more creativity and autonomy to thrive. I moved on to the media and entertainment industry, where I built a consumer video distribution arm for an educational video distribution company that specialized in acquiring the rights to documentaries from PBS, BBC, HBO, and virtually every public television station in the country. I parlayed that experience into a position with a much larger entertainment and direct response marketing corporation headquartered in the Washington DC area, where I built a direct-to-consumer business utilizing video, television, and music products. After six years in DC, the parent company moved me back to NYC to lead a consumer marketing business development team in the print publishing industry. Based on this experience, I was recruited into the children’s toy industry to build a membership department for a trade association representing manufacturers, designers, retailers, and other distributors of children’s entertainment products. Within two years of my arrival, the board asked me to assume an additional executive role and build a foundation that represented the philanthropic commitment of the entire North American toy industry to serve children who were sick, impoverished, in foster care, in military families, and those suffering in areas affected by natural disasters. This chapter in my career was the most personally rewarding and engendered the most pride, so I knew that using my corporate skill set to build businesses that helped others was the right path for me.”
Wow, an impressive background to say the least with many different dimensions layered in your experience. I always wonder how individuals find the passion to work in the nonprofit sect in business. “My passion for nonprofit work is the product of core values instilled in me throughout my life and took root when I had the opportunity to design and create a foundation for the children’s toy industry. Our team started from scratch and thoughtfully considered every aspect- from programming to fundraising to marketing and everything in-between. We had first-hand experience with children who were suffering and in need of some joy, comfort, and healing. We quickly realized the impact a toy or even the opportunity to play could have on this vulnerable population. A toy was a symbol that someone cared about them; a distraction from a frightening medical procedure; a way for the child to feel “normal” while missing a parent deployed by the military, and so much more. My perspective shifted through these direct-service programs which were administered around the globe, and my passion for mission-driven work has only grown stronger. I am thrilled to be able to use my passion for this type of work to further the noble cause of EKF.
What was it about the mission of EKF that spoke to you as there are many organizations that can use your expertise. “The purpose of EKF is to improve the lives of children who are in hospitals by humanizing healthcare. The mission statement speaks to me because it is a dynamic notion that is optimistic, full of energy and can be adapted to meet specific circumstances. The aid provided by EKF takes many forms, including, but not limited to, technology and equipment, support groups, therapy, and beautiful healing spaces. The improvements to the hospital experience that cannot be quantified, like the feelings of love, support, and comfort that the children and their families feel because of EKF’s work, are benefits that go far beyond the hospital walls and deeply impact lives.
Moreover, for more than 35 years, enCourage Kids has invested more than 50 million dollars to help medically challenged kids, their families, and hospitals. Our relationships with the child life community put us in a unique position to be the organization they reach out to when they need help. Through the Jay Anderson Pediatric Hospital Support Fund, we’ve funded more than 860 projects in hospitals across the country. We’ve funded Emergency Room Admission Kits filled with games, activity books and personal items to help kids get acclimated to their hospital stay, tablets with customized apps child life specialists use to teach kids about their illness or to distract them during painful procedures, renovations of play spaces and treatment rooms to make them more child-friendly, support groups that provide safe spaces where kids can talk to other kids who are experiencing the same emotional highs and lows of living with chronic illness, and creative therapies that allow kids to express their feelings and struggles in ways they may not otherwise be able to. Another of our programs, and one of our most popular and scalable, is our Teddy Bear program, where we send teddy bears directly to hospitalized children. Our bears are wrapped in plastic to comply with hygiene protocols, and they not only serve as a cuddly companion during difficult times, but we’ve learned that child life specialists use our bears to demonstrate procedures like inserting an IV or taking a blood pressure reading. Once the kids see Teddy getting an IV, they become a little less apprehensive about getting one themselves. These are just a few examples of the kinds of programs we’ve supported to help improve the lives of hospitalized children and their families.” I personally think that all the programs that EKF implements in their partnering hospitals, is fantastic and much needed. Some of these children are in the hospital for the long haul and these programs serve its purpose.” That is outstanding work and support that the hospitals don’t have in place from the get-go and is with the help of organizations like EKF that make it possible to make a child’s hospital stay that much more comfortable. I recall when my niece went into Mount Sinai Kravitz in Manhattan, she received a teddy bear and I smiled from ear to ear knowing it was the work of EKF and I was so proud to be a media partner and help amplify their mission. “Yes, that is beautiful to hear, and we love that we can have such a positive impact on these children and their families.”
Let’s touch on the pediatric healthcare landscape and how it has changed over the last few years. How has it impacted what you do, and the ways enCourage Kids supports hospitals and their patients? “The pandemic drastically impacted pediatric healthcare and we learned early on that the impact was felt differently from region to region across the country. The relationships that we’ve developed with child life staff over the past 25 years helped us be able to adapt to their needs and provide support that elevates the level of care they can provide to their patients.
The pandemic also brought to light the many healthcare disparities that exist between communities. For many children, challenges that existed before March 2020 became magnified during the pandemic, particularly in low-income communities that were hardest hit by the virus as we found in Brooklyn and Queens. Brookdale University Hospital Medical Center, which is located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City and serves one of the most vulnerable areas in all of NY State, is an example of one hospital that used technology to provide continuing care for their patients who were not able to go to the hospital for routine visits, and even expanded the reach of their Sickle Cell Support group, which is a group funded by our Jay Anderson Pediatric Hospital Support Fund.
Recently, our focus has been working with child life to address the needs of pediatric psychiatric patients with the introduction of our Mental Health Coping Kits. It’s been incredibly rewarding to be able to support this underserved community of patients.” Mental health is a growing concern and is coming to light these days. We know that EKF has launched a mental health program in their partner hospitals. “We were very excited to receive funding from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation for the creation of a mental health comfort kit program. As you may be aware, one of the stark realities to come to light this past year has been the impact of the pandemic on the mental health and social development of children. With so many interactions occurring in the virtual space, kids were missing out on the social and mental benefits that come with attending school and social interactions. For children in the hospital, the level of isolation they were experiencing was particularly traumatic. We learned from our hospital partners that mental health wasn’t just a concern, it was an impending crisis, particularly for teens. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death between the ages of 10 and 20.
We knew this was an area where enCourage Kids could make a significant impact. We already had a Comfort Kit program where we distributed items such as crayons, coloring books, small electronic games and arts and crafts packaged in clear resealable bags and designed for single use to prevent the spread of infection. With input from our panel of healthcare professionals from across the country, we developed a plan to create 3 different comfort kits that contain safe items that can be given to kids hospitalized kids with mental health needs, particularly those who are on a psychiatric hold or watch. Over the last six months, 2500 Mental Health Comfort Kits have been distributed to four New York City area hospitals, and the feedback has been extremely positive. We’re compiling the data now and hope to be able to secure funding to expand the program to more hospitals, both in New York City and nationwide.” I know these kits provide such joy and comfort to these children who are dealing with so much more than a medical challenge. I commend the work of EKF!
Let’s talk about Child life specialists since they play an integral role for hospitalized children.“Yes, they do indeed! Child life is an amazing profession that deals with the day-to-day challenges of helping children navigate the pressure of being sick, a physical and emotional trauma which impacts the whole family, not just the patient. Child life specialists are different from many other health care providers in that the profession is designed to focus on the psychosocial needs of the patient, including mental, emotional, and social needs. They are trained to use a variety of tactics and age-appropriate strategies to minimize trauma and increase understanding of a medical diagnosis through treatment plans using therapeutic play, education, preparation, and activities that promote growth and development. It’s a profession that often goes unnoticed, and is not always a priority in hospital budgets, but their skills are invaluable to the overall treatment and care of pediatric patients. Our unique approach in asking our hospital partners to tell us what they need rather than providing cookie cutter programming differentiates enCourage Kids from other organizations. Time and again, our partners tell us how much they appreciate that they can reach out to us to fulfill the specific needs of the patients and communities they serve. It’s an important difference with a significant impact. Many of the projects we fund and programs we develop, would not exist without the support we receive. Hospitals need our help now more than ever especially in communities where there are large health disparities and fewer resources. Our programs benefit all children, yet we seek to ensure that hospitals with fewer resources are always given priority consideration. We have been doing this for 37 years and are eager to do even more! We invite your readers to take that journey with us.”
We love attending and covering the EK events. Each event has its own character and sheds a different light on the efforts of the organization. “Yes, they do and with the same mission. We are excited to be planning our 38th Anniversary Gala taking place in June (details TBD) and our 9th Annual Serving Up Smiles tasting event taking place on October 16th at the beautiful waterfront space, The Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers. These signature events are our largest fundraisers of the year. Serving Up Smiles has grown to be one of our most anticipated events, with food from some of the best chefs and restaurants the city has to offer along with samplings from excellent wineries and delicious handcrafted cocktails. This is a wonderful opportunity for our community to support the work of EKF and to sample food from some of the city’s finest dining establishments while enjoying live music and an exciting silent auction. We’ll be sharing more information on these and other fundraising events on our social media and website, so stay tuned!”
“EKF is well-known within the hospital community, but lesser known among the public. We need to educate and engage a wider swath of the public in our work through marketing initiatives so that we can enhance our resources and expand our hospital programs across the country. Our mental health pilot program is an excellent example of the type of work we do in direct partnership with hospitals but does require additional resources to make it available to hospitals on a national scale. We will also build strategic partnerships in the corporate sector which allow us to expand current programs such as the Teddy Bear program; create new, innovative programs that meet specific hospital needs which have been communicated to us; and broaden our impact with children and families who need us the most. Finally, we’ll look to engage and partner with other industries that have children and healthcare at their epicenter. This includes the pharmaceutical, technology, and children’s entertainment industries, as the well-being of children and families is the lifeblood of all our businesses.”
To learn more and get involved with EKF, please visit their website, www.encourage-kids.org, and follow them on social media so you can see the children they serve and the programs they provide to hospitals across the country. Read the inspiring stories of their hospital partners at www.ekf-heroes.org and consider donating to help them continue and expand their work. Look at the critical programs they provide and see what interests you. If you are in the New York City area, consider joining their Young Professionals Board. And be sure to attend their tasting event, Serving Up Smiles, on October 16th and be sure to bring your appetite.