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Karen Wellington Foundation provides essential element for women battling breast cancer: Fun

By Vicki Prichard
NKyTribune reporter

Radiation oncologist Dr. Lauren Castellini earns her living at St. Elizabeth Healthcare by treating, and very often curing, patients with cancer. As for aspects of the patient that medicine can’t treat, she knows that the Karen Wellington Foundation very often has the answer.

Karen Wellington, with her children, Robby and Angeline. Karen fought cancer for ten years but refused to let it define her. The Karen Wellington Foundation continues the spirit of her legacy.

“I know that there’s only so much that I can do with my radiation,” says Castellini. “I can treat them, I can, hopefully, in a lot of cases, cure them of cancer, but there’s this whole other aspect of the patient that as a physician you can’t necessarily treat, and that other aspect is the whole person — their whole life, their husband and their kids.”

Schedule some “fun” on the calendar

The Karen Wellington Foundation’s (KWF) mission is to put fun on the calendars of women and families living with breast cancer by sending them on special vacations, spa days, dinners out, concerts, and other “fun-only” activities.

Patients who are actively battling breast cancer are nominated to receive one of these special vacation or events through KWF by friends, loved ones, coworkers, or other caring and compassionate individuals, like Castellini. Founded in Cincinnati, the KWF now has ten chapters throughout the U.S. The foundation relies on the generosity of people to donate a week a year of their vacation homes or timeshares, airline miles, or cash.

Castellini says she was in residency as a radiation oncologist when she first learned about KWF. A friend of hers who does a good deal of behind-the-scenes work with the foundation told her she should hear more about it. The more she learned, she knew she wanted to get involved. She currently sits on the foundation’s medical advisory board, but she’s also had a hand in helping cancer patients put a little bit of fun in their lives, because ‘fun’ is central to the KWF mission.

A recipient of a KWF vacation celebrates a day at the beach.

“I think of one of our first patients,” says Castellini. “She comes in and says she just feels horrible. I asked her what was going on and she said she felt like she hadn’t been a mom for the past year, hadn’t been a wife. “I’m just down,” she said. I looked at her and asked her if she needed a break and she said she couldn’t afford to have a break because she hadn’t worked in a year.”

In that moment, Castellini knew she had to try to help the woman put some fun on her calendar. She asked the patient if she would mind if she nominated her for one of KWF’s vacations and she agreed.

“To be able to say, “Hey, check this out, because of the generosity of our local community,” is what’s so great about this,” says Castellini.

Rx: beachfront

Castellini got some of her colleagues on board with KWF as well. St. Elizabeth nurse, Susan Girard, was one of the first to get involved. Girard, brings her own unique insight to the effort.

“I have a little bit of a unique view because I am a breast cancer survivor, so I know what that’s like — going through the diagnosis, the waiting — just the emotional ups and downs,” says Girard. “We had a vacation home at the time, so I was able to recover in this beautiful place — Maui — and I remember lying on the beach, and I thought it was so healing just to be in this wonderful, serene, healing place, and wishing everyone had that opportunity.”

Dr. Lauren Castellini and nurse Susan Girard, both with St. Elizabeth Healthcare, have each had a hand in seeing to it that breast cancer patients receive some much deserved fun through the Karen Wellington Foundation.

Girard says it was almost serendipitous when Castellini asked if anyone on St. Elizabeth’s radiation oncology staff knew someone with a vacation home they would like to donate.

“I donated it and the first woman that went there was a single mom, and she took her 15-year-old daughter,” says Girard. “She texted me, she was so excited, she loved it. She and her daughter had the most wonderful bonding experience. It was fabulous.”

When Girard learned last year that the mother had passed away, she was comforted to know that, as a donor, she was able to give an experience to the young daughter to always have that memory with her mom.

“The memories are what you live for,” says Castellini. “I always tell patients, you’ve got to keep living. You can’t let this cancer define you.”

Girard interjects that, for a period of time, that’s exactly how cancer patients feel.

“For that period of time, when you’re under treatment, you just feel like a cancer diagnosis. You go from doctor’s appointment to doctor’s appointment, then chemo,” says Girard. “Your whole calendar is based on cancer and there’s nothing fun. When these patients get these opportunities, they are just over the moon.”

One of Castellini’s patients shared exactly what that opportunity to have ‘fun’ meant to her and her family:

“God has two dwellings — one in Heaven, and the other in a THANKFUL heart.” My family is so humble and grateful to have been nominated for this awesome trip! We have returned home with so much joy and rejuvenation! We prayed, laughed, even shed a few tears together. Thank you again to everyone at Karen’s Foundation who made this possible.”

A mighty force for fun

Karen Wellington, the namesake of the foundation that has sent more than 400 women on vacations, and provided more than 150 spa days, knew when she was battling her own cancer that she wanted to do something for others. In 2017, KWF sent 85 families on vacation. Wellington was 30 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer; she died in 2007 at the age of 40.

Kent Wellington says KWF began from his wife’s “seed of an idea.”

He says Karen told him that once she beat cancer, it would be nice to send one person on vacation a year.

Karen Wellington’s “Queen Rooster.”

“She said, “It would be nice, once we beat cancer, if we could send one person on a vacation a year — we go on one, and we send someone else on one,”” Wellington says. “We never really talked about it, but that was kind of her experience, she saw all these people in the chemo chairs with not a whole lot to look forward to, just in full survival mode. When she was feeling lowest, the best thing I could do as a husband was get some fun on the calendar.”

When Karen was diagnosed, the Wellingtons had two young children, Angeline, who was six months old, and Robby, who was two and a half years old. Karen battled cancer for ten years.

“She packed a lot of her life in those ten years,” says Wellington. “She had a real aggressive initial diagnosis; she had a lot of lymph nodes involved. She pretty much had a ten-year chronic illness.”

Fortunately, Wellington says, hormone therapy drugs were available to help with side effects which were relatively benign.

All the while, Karen refused to let cancer define her.

“She started singing in cover bands, she started painting, she was a soccer coach,” says Wellington.

When Karen died, Wellington, an attorney with the Graydon law firm, says friends, family, and colleagues wanted to know where to send flowers. He knew she wouldn’t want money going to flowers, so he established a fund to send one family on vacation.

“She wanted to do that, and it’s almost surreal in that it dawned on me within minutes of her dying was that this is what she wanted,” says Wellington. “I didn’t have some grand plan.”

The fund received money for more than one family to go on vacation, so Wellington planned an event at Christ Hospital for the whole oncology floor, where Karen had received her treatment. Wellington says they celebrated every holiday on the oncology floor, even the WEBN Labor Day fireworks event.

“We had a massage therapist come in, we had care packages,” says Wellington. “We called it our Mt. Auburn Bed and Breakfast. It was logical to do the first big thing there and thank them. Since then, it’s really been just vacations and spa days, concerts and fun stuff. Whatever people like to do.”

Spreading the good word about a good effort

Wellington says patients generally find their way to KWF by word of mouth.

“It still tends to be word of mouth. We’ve got 3000 followers on Facebook, so social media has been helpful,” he says. “The beauty is our recipients post stuff while they’re on vacation. That’s the best. They’re awesome.”

The women, says Wellington, are very much like Karen in that they don’t want to be defined by cancer.

“She wanted to be remembered as a mom who could throw the party together, who could bake the birthday cake, that’s how you want to be remembered, not as the mom with cancer,” says Wellington. “So, these vacations not only give them a break, but also allows them to help redefine themselves as the fun, carefree mom, being goofy with her two daughters on a trip.”

Wellington points out women in all stages of cancer can be nominated to enjoy a trip or fun package through the KWF.

“I want stage one people coming — I want all stages — and I want this cycle of receiving and giving to continue,” he says.

Wellington says KWF is “friends fueled.”

Karen Wellington’s Queen Rooster

“It is friend fueled in that friends will ask friends who have vacation homes,” says Wellington. “There’s all these generous people out there that I don’t know but someone does – my friends do.”

Among the biggest trip requests they get from many mothers is Disney World.

“They need to check it off,” he says. “They say, “Before I can get chemo or radiation, I need to check Disney off. So, we do a lot of Disney trips. Then mom comes home, and the kids have been to Disney, and mom’s like, ‘okay, get the chemo in.’”

Wellington says the success of KWF, and the growing national chapters, was “purely God-led.”

“As I’ve said, it’s a God-led function — fun-focused, friend-fueled, and girl-powered,” he says. “That’s the four legs of the foundation.”

Not just another foundation

The Wellington children also contribute to the success of their mother’s foundation.

“These kids never knew their mom without breast cancer. That was their reality,” says Wellington.

Last year, the Wellington children, now in college, raised money for the foundation and help find recipients.

“Robbie’s fraternity raised $12,000, and Angeline’s sorority — her mom was a Kappa, and Angeline’s a Kappa — is real involved. They keep their eyes open for people who are living with breast cancer,” says Wellington.

On April 14, 2018, KWF will host its annual “FUNdraiser,” Karen’s Gifts “Forever in Bloom” Celebration at the Renaissance Hotel in Cincinnati. The event helps raise funds for vacations, spa days, dinners out, and other opportunities for fun for women living with breast cancer and their families.

Castellini says she wants people to know that KWF is “not just another foundation.”

“I think the big thing I would want people to know about is it’s not just another foundation where you send off your money and it goes to research and hopefully one day we’ll find a cure, which, is super important, but instead, it’s this special foundation where if you just come to one thing you will feel the magic behind it because it is so selfishly rewarding to make someone else happy,” says Castellini.

“You’re directly creating memories for people today. If patients can go on these trips and have these amazing times, you’re not only impacting that patient, it trickles down — there are kids, caregivers, and loved ones.”

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