I had the opportunity to catch up with Michele Hall Duncan, President & CEO enCourage Kids Foundation which has become one of our favorite organizations to support. Michele is a fearless leader and is doing outstanding work making hospitals a better place to get better. Recently, Michele and her team launched their Healthcare Heroes Campaign marking the anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

IR: You’re highlighting the great work of Meghan Kelly, Child Life Program Director, Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Dr. Gerald Loughlin, Professor of Pediatrics, Weill Cornell Medicine/New York-Presbyterian Nicole Perez, Coordinator of Child Life Services, NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst, Dr. Kusum Viswanathan, Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, Brookdale University Hospital Medical Center. Can you share a little about each of them? 

MHD: March 11th was exactly one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and one year since we had to cancel our 35th Anniversary Gala. This year, we decided to forgo trying to plan a virtual gala in March and launched our Honoring Healthcare Heroes campaign with the dual purpose of highlighting the incredible work of our hospital partners on the front lines of fighting this pandemic, and raising $1M to continue to provide them with what they need to treat and care for the children and families they serve. The campaign highlights stories of courage and resilience from different voices and different hospitals throughout New York City. Our featured heroes have personally and professionally been affected by COVID-19 in ways that we hope no one else will ever experience, and they have done so while putting the lives of those in their care front and center. 

Meghan Kelly, Child Life Program Director, Children’s Hospital at Montefiore 

Meghan is a very good friend of mine. As a child life professional for more than 20 years, she’s played a key role in serving as emotional support and helping pediatric patients and their families navigate and cope with the stress, confusion and trauma of their hospital experience and the effects of illness on their lives. Nothing could have prepared her for her own experience being diagnosed with COVID-19 in mid-March 2020, when the most we knew about it was that you died from it. She found strength in sharing her experience online, and unwittingly inspired others to remain hopeful in their own recoveries. When she returned to work, she led her child life team through months of uncertainty, navigating the emotional and physical strain of a strange new world, and pitching in wherever needed as their pediatric counts decreased and adult COVID patients increased. 

Dr. Gerald Loughlin, Professor of Pediatrics, Weill Cornell Medicine/New York-Presbyterian 

As a member of the age group particularly vulnerable to the virus, Dr. Loughlin was frustrated that he couldn’t do more to be at the hospital with his team in the trenches. Instead, the Pediatrician-in-Chief became the “cheerleader-in-chief” and he worked behind the scenes supporting his team of child life specialists who pivoted to utilizing their special skills to provide palliative care to adult COVID-19 patients. Other departments within the New York-Presbyterian health system took notice and even started to incorporate child life concepts of family-centered care into their adult care treatments. 

Nicole Perez, Coordinator of Child Life Services, NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst 

As a one-person child life program in a hospital located in one of the hardest hit areas during the height of the pandemic, referred to as “the epicenter of the epicenter”, Nicole told us that in those first few months she felt like she was in the middle of a war zone. She found herself dealing with challenges she had never encountered before, like new mothers being discharged with their babies and not being able to find the most basic supplies to care for them because local shops had run out. So, she turned to enCourage Kids for help and we were able to secure donations of diapers, wipes, baby clothes and other supplies. 

Dr. Kusum Viswanathan, Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, Brookdale University Hospital Medical Center

Dr. Vis has spent her career treating her patients with care and compassion, making every child feel heard and understood. When her patients weren’t able to come to the hospital for routine visits, Dr. Vis took the care to them, embracing telemedicine to stay in touch, and to expand the reach of her Sickle Cell support group, funded by enCourage Kids, serving even more children and families. Brookdale 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, and one of the hardest-hit by the virus. The hospital did a tremendous job in vaccinating the community, providing the vaccine to anyone who is eligible rather than requiring pre-registered appointments, and using community-based organizations to educate people. 

IR: I don’t believe that most people truly understand the depth of what healthcare workers do for the patients in their care, especially children. What is your feeling on this? 

MHD: There are definitely facets to healthcare that you don’t often hear about and a lot of that has come to light in the past year. One common tale we heard when we interviewed the healthcare heroes featured in our Honoring Healthcare Heroes campaign was how so many hospital workers jumped in to help wherever they were needed no matter their role in the hospital hierarchy. Heads of departments were rolling scrubs to stock shelves. Child life staff were passing out meals to doctors and nurses who barely had time to take a break let alone figure out what they were going to eat when they did. They did so day after day, often at great risk to themselves, particularly in places where they didn’t have enough personal protective equipment to go around. 

Child life is an amazing profession that deals with the day-to-day challenges of helping children navigate the absolute pressure of being sick, and as you can imagine, the experience takes a huge toll on the family and child. One silver lining of this horrible situation is for people to see the tremendous importance of this group of professionals and the great benefits beyond serving children. One thing that stood out the most was how the core focus of child life specialists included skills that allowed them to easily pivot within various departments – becoming integral players throughout the hospitals as they battled the virus. I think it’s a game changer to hear that the skills they have been developing and utilizing for decades are being incorporated into other areas of the hospital, especially in large hospital systems like New York-Presbyterian. I’m excited to see how more and more hospitals will take notice and how that will impact medical outcomes and overall care going forward. 

IR: What can you share with our readers as the biggest takeaway with healthcare workers? 

I think what you’ve seen over the last year is the world discovering something that we at enCourage Kids have known for a long time—healthcare workers are true heroes. Unless you have experienced or directly witnessed what they have experienced, I don’t think you can truly understand the toll this pandemic has taken. For some, like Nicole Perez at NYC Health + Hospitals, it truly was like a war zone. There are findings that as of the end of March 2021, 300,000 hospital workers have contracted COVID-19 and 3,500 have died. The majority of the people who have died are under the age of 60. These are staggering numbers, and because there wasn’t any large-scale tracking, the true number might never be known and is likely higher. That is why we started our Honoring Healthcare Heroes campaign, to tell their stories, and to show their sacrifices and the impact of their actions not just on their patients but in their communities. 

IR: I know it must be hard for you not to go into the hospitals as they still haven’t lifted the COVID rules. When do you think you will be able to get back in there and what will be one of the first things that you do when you’re able to? 

MHD: Like many others, one thing I look forward to the most on a personal level is just being able to meet with people in person. On a programming level, we’ve been able to continue to deliver most of our in-hospital programming throughout the pandemic. We sent nearly 1000 teddy bears to 32 hospitals nationwide and over 500 Comfort and Coping Kits specifically geared toward teens in tri-state area hospitals, an often-overlooked population. But our in-person hospital entertainer visits were put on hold.

Some of our entertainers have been doing virtual visits, but we’re looking forward to returning to a regular schedule of in-person visits. So much of what they do depends on being there in person, in the moment, able to read the temperature of the room and react to what’s needed. Our entertainers do more than just make kids laugh. Medical staff often utilize them to calm patients during difficult procedures like when inserting an IV or before or after surgery. A clown parade down a hallway can be the first time a physical therapist is able to get a patient to walk. For many hospitals, our clowns, magicians, and musicians have become part of the fabric of the hospital and an important part of the healing process. 

IR: How are things going with enCourage Kids these days as businesses are opening up and people are getting back to the office. 

MHD: I’m feeling optimistic and am excited to see what the future will bring. Fundraising has been a tremendous challenge and like many non-profits, we saw a dramatic loss of revenue from having to cancel almost all of our fundraising events, including our 35th anniversary Gala last March. March is when we would have held our annual gala this year. But my team galvanized and pivoted to reassess our fundraising methods and resources. We have a goal to raise $1M through our Honoring Healthcare Heroes campaign, and we are planning a golf outing in the summer and a tasting event in the fall, and are hopeful to be able to hold those at close to pre-pandemic levels. We have to be hopeful. That’s our industry. We are the helpers, that’s our job. Our mission is to support the workers on the frontlines and the children in their care, and we have to be there for them. I’m optimistic that we will be able to meet any new challenges that surface in the coming months, and I plan to do everything I can to make sure enCourage Kids continues to fulfill its mission. 

IR: Do you think the virtual side of the events will be a thing of the past or still play a role? 

MHD: I haven’t seen or heard about any virtual events that have made people stop and think, yes, this is the wave of the future. I think that the advancements in virtual reality technology that have occurred in the past year may have a future complementary role in live events, and this year you might still see a hybrid of virtual and in-person events as companies test the waters on holding large gatherings. But I don’t see virtual events replacing live events in a significant way. People want to network, they want to dance, they want to eat good food, and they want to engage with others who share their industry, interests and passion for a cause. They want to see and be seen—in person. 

IR: How do you personally feel about the event side of the business? I know many CEO’S didn’t really like the virtual platform because they missed the social interaction, notwithstanding the fact that you had a successful Serving Up Smiles event this past December. 

MHD: Having held our Serving Up Smiles tasting event virtually last year, I can tell you, executing a virtual event is not easy! In some ways, it’s actually harder and requires greater resources and creativity than planning an in-person event. The benefit is that there’s potential to reach a broader audience with your message, which we did with Serving Up Smiles. We had attendees from all across the country participate. But humans are social animals. I don’t think the virtual experience can fully replace or replicate the energy, excitement and interaction of a live event. 

IR: Congratulations on all of your success lately, especially with being named CRAIN’S LIST of Notable Black Leaders and Executives. What do you hope other leaders in your position will do to disrupt the way black people in general are treated in the workplace? 

MHD: Thank you! I was very honored to be included among such a distinguished group of leaders and to be recognized for my accomplishments. I think the most important thing leaders can do is to call out mistreatment and discrimination no matter to whom it’s directed. We also have to do more to lead by example and lift each other up. Black leaders, and especially female black leaders, need to not only take advantage of opportunities to encourage and promote people of color, but also create those opportunities. Our responsibility is to meet each other where we are, not judge, but to be accepting and to appreciate what’s different about each of us. Hold out a hand to the other person standing behind you. It starts at the top. 

IR: This is a very prominent time for women of color to lead by example. How can your influence make a difference to the younger generation today? 

MHD: If I could impart any advice to the younger generation, it would be to be your authentic selves. Each of us individually and collectively brings a certain aura with us and I think that many of us in our lives have been discouraged from being who we are authentically. I’ve learned that there’s something about me being authentically me, and being a woman of color, that is of great value to everyone around me. We all have experiences that we bring with us and it’s so important to stay true to ourselves. I think it’s harder in this new generation of young women who have to deal with social media and being judged more than I did. They have a tendency to shrink themselves, or go to the opposite extreme and be unnecessarily arrogant. I want to say to them, “Please understand that you are an individual with great power, an individual with great potential.” It’s something that took me a long time to learn and what I try to impart to the women I mentor. Women empowering women is one of the most important things we can do for each other. 

IR: We really enjoy seeing your face and reading your interviews everywhere. We have been a big fan of the organization for years and love covering you and your events. What is the most important thing you would like to see our readers takeaway about the enCourage Kids Foundation? 

MHD: enCourage Kids is committed to making hospitals a better place to get better for kids and families. We try to help everyone in the hospital who is on the frontlines—the child life specialists, the doctors, the nurses—with the things that they need that insurance doesn’t cover, to help those hospitalized children and their psychosocial well-being. We fill in the gaps, funding projects and programs not covered by normal hospital budgets, particularly in communities most impacted by health disparities. There are hundreds of hospitals nationwide that rely on us, and we are committed to investing in hospitals with fewer resources and ensuring they and their patients have access to high-quality resources and tools. For more than 35 years, we’ve invested more than 50 million dollars to help medically challenged kids, their families, and hospitals, and we’re excited to do even more. 

IR: We hear that Serving Up Smiles in person will be taking place this year in October. Tell us what to expect this year as I’m guessing it will be an even bigger this year since having to cancel last year? 

MHD: We are really looking forward to holding our tasting event in person! It’s being held on October 19th at The Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers, a beautiful waterfront space with views overlooking the Hudson River. Since we began the event 6 years ago, it has grown into one of our most anticipated events. Our vision is to bring together some of the best chefs and restaurants the city has to offer. We will also have excellent wineries represented and handcrafted cocktails. It will be a wonderful opportunity for our community to support the work of enCourage Kids Foundation and to sample food from some of the city’s finest dining establishments while enjoying live music and an exciting silent auction. The auction will contain items to suit all interests—sports memorabilia, travel packages, golf foursomes, private dining and one-of-a-kind experiences, just to name a few. We’ll be sharing details on our website and social media channels as we get closer to the date so stay tuned! 

IR: We interview many celebrity chefs and even had David Burke on one of our covers. Who is on your wish list this year? You never know who will be reading this.

MHD: We were thrilled to have David Burke present a cooking demonstration for our Serving Up Smiles at Home cooking class series last summer. I love Son Cubano, his restaurant in West New York! We hope he will participate in Serving Up Smiles this year. I would also love to see Chef Eddie Cotto, Jr. of ME Casa participate. He has mastered Puerto Rican cuisine and makes the best Carne Guisada I have ever tasted. 

IR: How can people get involved with the enCourage Kids Foundation? 

MHD: The best way to learn more and get involved is to visit our website and follow us on social media so you can see the children we serve and the ways we are partnering with hospitals across the country. Read the inspiring stories of our featured Healthcare Heroes at www.ekf-heroes.org and consider donating to help us continue to support the work they do and the children in their care. Look at the critical programs we are funding and see what interests you. If you are in the New York City area, consider volunteering or joining our Young Professionals Board. If you want to stand in the gap between a sick child and the trauma that illness can inflict, consider donating to bring joy, hope, resilience and healing to kids all across the country. 

IR: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me and we look forward to seeing you at all your upcoming events. 

MHD: It’s my pleasure and I look forward to seeing you soon.