This nonprofit organization created by SingularCity member Patty Kerrigan is helping kids that survive cancer get back into school and back on track for a successful life.
If someone were to ask me what the best part of starting Singular magazine and SingularCity has been, I’d have to say it’s been the amazing people I’ve met as a result — like Patty Kerrigan. When you meet this “singular” petite brunette, it’s hard to believe that not only is she the mother of five grown kids, she’s also a “brainiac” with a Ph.D. in special education who has devoted her life to helping sick children.
For almost 18 years she’s worked with youngsters who are struggling to overcome the cognitive damage that can result from cancer and cancer treatment. Her official job title at UCLA’s Mattel Children’s Hospital is “cognitive late-effects specialist for the division of pediatric hematology/oncology.” It’s a job title that practically requires a Ph.D. to grasp.
It was while doing her “day job” that Patty was inspired to create Foundation ThinkAgain! This nonprofit, which she launched in 2007, provides additional therapy — help that wasn’t coming from hospitals and wasn’t covered by most health insurance — to pediatric cancer and brain tumor survivors. Someone needed to do something to help these kids complete their education and therefore, achieve a promising future. Patty took on the challenge.
Kim: Tell us about Foundation ThinkAgain! — how it came about and why you decided to create it.
Patty: I’ve worked at UCLA in the kids’ cancer and brain tumor clinics for many years. I counsel kids as they go through their treatment, consult with doctors on the research related to cognitive late-effects of current treatments (cognitive late-effects are effects of treatment that show up later in a child’s development and are not readily seen soon after treatment), discuss these findings with parents monitor their children’s schooling and social relationships, and evaluate them at the completion of their therapy.
Even though overall cancer survivor rates in kids are up to 80 percent, that success has a cost; chemotherapy to the central nervous system and radiation to the brain damages development, not to mention the damage that can occur when navigating though the brain to remove tumors.
Although their physical issues were being addressed, there was a gap between evaluating their cognitive function and reintegrating them back into life with kids their own age. They needed additional support and it just wasn’t there. I felt that despite all I was doing to help them within the scope of my job, I wasn’t able to give them with what they needed to resume a normal life.
You see, when these kids are dealing with cancer and brain tumors, as well as the invasive treatments used to cure them, it has a big impact on their cognitive ability — their brain function. They often have a variety of learning and processing problems as a result. It’s heartbreaking to see these little superheroes, as I think of them, successfully fight their disease only to fail when they return to school. It’s so discouraging for them to come so far and then face that.
Very often, medical insurance denies coverage for the therapies these kids need or it doesn’t cover it sufficiently — whether it be occupational therapy, physical therapy, cognitive remediation, educational therapy or speech and language therapy — they weren’t getting what they needed. So in 2007, I started Foundation ThinkAgain!. I literally just jumped into it … hoping there would be a net to catch me.
Kim: What are some of the biggest rewards you’ve received because of this? Any particular success stories that you’d like to share with us?
Patty: One that comes to mind at the moment is Juan. He was diagnosed with leukemia at age 2 and had significant learning problems throughout elementary school. We were able to get him special education services. But even with those services, he failed almost every class in his first year of high school. It just wasn’t enough and we had to intervene. The educational therapy he received from Foundation ThinkAgain! helped him turn those grades around, graduate with mostly A’s, and now he’s happy and doing well in college.
Another boy, Emmett, survived a malignant brain tumor, but he had significant speech and physical disabilities from the surgery and treatment. We provided speech as well as a great deal of physical therapy that was denied by his PPO health insurance. After all the therapy with Foundation ThinkAgain!, he’s a happy, healthy kid playing soccer. When you know that it’s the result of something you’ve done, it’s tremendously rewarding and there’s nothing like a child thanking you for helping them.
Kim: What are some of the biggest challenges the organization faces?
Patty: One of the biggest is raising money so we can continue to help these kids. To do that, I need to take something in my heart that is vital and express it to people in a way that enables them to see it as vital in their hearts. I need faithful followers of the movement, if you will, who will support our fundraising efforts and make Foundation ThinkAgain! one of their charities.
In the spring, we have “A Taste of Westwood” where a variety of restaurants in the Westwood area set up booths and provide samples of their food and drinks, plus there is live entertainment and a silent auction and raffle. And in February, we have “Bowling for Brains 2016” at the Pinz Bowling Alley in Studio City. People sign up to bowl and then get their friends and family to sponsor them in the form of donations for Foundation ThinkAgain!. Both of these events are anchors for our fundraising efforts.
Of course, like most charities, we have financial limitations. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to hire a marketing director for Foundation ThinkAgain! with an MBA from Harvard? Imagine the good that person could do! But nonprofits like us are pretty restricted as to how they spend money on staff. I am not paid. No one is paid yet… except for the therapists that we hire as subcontractors.
Kim: How about you personally? This is your baby, what kind of impact does the responsibility of keeping Foundation ThinkAgain! operating successfully have on your everyday, personal life?
Patty: What personal life? (laughs) Certainly it takes many, many hours out of my week to work on both the charity and my work at UCLA, but I do manage to squeeze in an outing here and there — movies with friends, occasional dinners. My kids are grown, so no one is demanding dinner every night or needs help with their homework anymore. I manage to be able to work a little bit every day of the week, rather than cramming in eight-hour days then home to do the family thing. It all works really well.
Bottom line, I love my work with these kids — believe it or not, these kids are amazing and happy, even in the darkest moments. They are warriors and so brave. I have been working with them for 17 years now. The first two years were tough; I had to find a way to stay attached to the kids, yet detach from the deaths. Deaths are hard for all of us — and they do happen.
Kim: Going forward, what goals would you like to achieve in the future with Foundation ThinkAgain!?
Patty: I’d really love to get to the point where I could hire a full- time executive director who could make this a nationally available program with chapters near all major children’s hospitals. That is my dream. There is no other nonprofit that funds rehabilitation therapies for children severely affected by cancer and brain tumors, and it is so desperately needed in order to help these kids complete their recovery and integrate back into a normal life.
I want Foundation ThinkAgain! to be able to operate on its own — to be a well-oiled machine. I set up the model, and I need to ready it for my successor. There are thousands of kids out there that need this.
Support Foundation ThinkAgain! at Bowling for Brains 2016
Saturday, February 6, 2016, 2-5 p.m.
Pinz Bowling Alley
12655 Ventura Blvd.
Studio City, CA 91604
Sign up and you play for FREE, enjoy complimentary refreshments, receive a cool bowling shirt and can win prizes. All you have to do is get your friends, family, neighbors and co-workers to make a donation to Foundation ThinkAgain!!
Click here to sign up to bowl.
Please register ASAP as space is limited.
If you can’t make it or don’t want to play, you can still make a donation.
Please step up and support this worthy cause!