One doctor’s appointment to check what she thought was a gymnastics injury changed Jen’s life forever when she was diagnosed with a rare connective tissue and bone disease. Since then, Jen has undergone multiple surgeries and learned firsthand the struggles of being a hospitalized kid. A cheerful card from a stranger she received while a patient, however, sparked an idea and she committed herself to making it a reality.
Today, Jen runs a nationwide charity, Cards for Hospitalized Kids, that has distributed over 100,000 cards to hospitalized children in all 50 states. Knowing the impact a few kind words can have during a difficult time, Jen now spreads that joy across the entire United States to some of the kids who need it most.
What do you consider your greatest achievement to date?
I think my greatest accomplishment was not only maintaining, but continuing to grow, my charity Cards for Hospitalized Kids (CFHK) after going off to college. That was no easy feat. Many people assumed that me going off to college would be the end of CFHK because I was involved in all the day-to-day tasks (sorting cards, distributing cards, communicating with hospitals, managing social media and the website, writing thank-you letters to donors, etc). I cared too much about the kids we are helping, though. I was determined to find a way to continue CFHK.
I built a team of volunteers, both at home and at school, which has helped me ensure my charity not only maintained but also continued to grow. Since I started college in 2014, we have more than tripled the number of monthly cards we receive. I’m really proud of how much we’ve expanded.
What inspired you to launch this organization?
My own experiences as a “hospitalized kid” inspired me to start CFHK. At age 11, I was diagnosed with a rare childhood bone and connective tissue disease and began undergoing surgeries. I experienced firsthand how difficult it is to face serious health issues as a child/teen. In addition to their physical pain, kids facing serious health issues also miss out on parts of childhood most kids take for granted, such as attending school regularly or playing sports.
When I was 16, I underwent reconstructive surgery on my hip, where doctors had to break my hip in five places and completely reconstruct it. This recovery was very difficult for me because I knew I faced months of full-time rehabilitation to learn to walk again and would likely miss my entire junior year of high school. During this hospital stay, I received a handmade card from a hospital volunteer that really brightened my day and strengthened my spirit. It reminded me I wasn’t forgotten just because I was in the hospital and helped me during a very rough time in my life. I wanted to do the same for other kids in similar situations. Less than two months after the surgery, I had classmates and friends making cards for local hospitals. These efforts would eventually turn into my charity, CFHK.
How has running this charity affected you personally?
Founding CFHK has had such a positive impact on my life in ways I never imagined. It has given me a sense of purpose in my life and closure by allowing me to create something positive and impactful from my own hardships.
When I founded CFHK, I had to take on many different tasks with which I had no prior experience (building a website and social media platform, giving public speeches, reaching out to hospitals nationwide, training volunteers, etc.) These experiences have taught me so many useful skills—from social media, to speaking and more—that I can apply to my academics, my personal life and my eventual career after college.
It’s been amazing to see people of all ages—from toddlers to senior citizens—from across the United States and other countries get involved with my charity and come together under the common cause of helping sick kids. This has taught me that anything is possible.
What are some of the most meaningful moments you’ve experienced running CFHK?
The most meaningful moments are seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces when they receive the cards from my charity. It’s also especially meaningful when the kids go on to volunteer for us after they recover.
One of the first patients to receive a card from my charity was a heart transplant patient named Mackenzie. She spent several months in the hospital waiting for a heart to be available for her transplant and then recovering after the transplant. She was missing out on her senior year of high school. During that time, she received multiple cards from my charity as well as an autograph from her favorite star, Lauren Conrad. It impacted her so much that she began volunteering for my charity just one month after she got out of the hospital. It was so moving.
Many of the families and patients stay in touch with me years later. I’ve been blessed to build friendships with many of them.
Launching any project comes with its fair share of bumps in the road—what advice do you have to other collegiettes about dealing with rejection?
My advice would be to not let rejection scare you. When I started CFHK, I routinely faced rejection from agents and publicists when trying to get celebrities and Olympians involved. However, I didn’t let that stop me. I persisted and, as a result, my charity has a network of celebrity and Olympic supporters, such as Lauren Conrad, Actress Lucy Hale, and Olympic Gold Medalists Aly Raisman and Nastia Liukin, who help spread the word on social media and who donate autographs for us to distribute with the cards.
What are your plans or goals for the organization in the next few years?
I want to continue to expand CFHK as we have done the last few years. We want to continue reaching more hospitals and Ronald McDonald Houses and help as many hospitalized kids as possible. I also hope to continue doing more public speaking to share my story and inspire young people to realize their capacity to make a difference.
What’s your favorite inspirational quote?
“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
How would you describe yourself in five words?
Positive, compassionate, resilient, caring, determined.