FORT WASHINGTON >> After 40 years, Peggy Dolan, the self-described “founder and chief storyteller” for the Kelly Anne Dolan Memorial Fund decided it was time to retire.
“I just turned 70, and the realization that we’re 40 years old … I just thought we needed new blood,” Dolan said Sept. 20, reflecting on the events that led her and her husband, the late Joe Dolan, to set up the nonprofit to help families in crisis caring for children with serious illnesses, disabilities and injuries.
The Dolans’ compassion for others grew from their own experiences and grief born of emergency trips, hospitalizations and financial expense after their daughter Kelly Anne, diagnosed with aplastic anemia at age 2, succumbed to what turned into a rare form of leukemia a few months shy of her seventh birthday.
“I figure I lived a whole year within the walls of the hospital,” during her daughter’s stays at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Dolan said. “In doing that, I got to meet all these other parents and hear these awful stories of financial hardship.”
It was the story of Betty Jean, whose youngest son had cancer, that left an indelible mark.
A divorced single mom living in a poor area of Camden whose family had disowned her for marrying a black man, Betty Jean lost her job after having to spend so much time with her son at CHOP.
“It was a real hardship for her to be at the hospital,” Dolan said. “She would have to leave her 3-year-old, and one day I saw her crying on a bench.” With no job and having to pay for a sitter and public transportation, she had run out of money, Dolan said.
When the boy died, at age 4, Dolan and her husband went to the services.
“It was in a little chapel … a little boy carrying a Styrofoam box. He was buried in a mass grave; she couldn’t even put a marker,” Dolan said. “It was so sad. It gave us the impetus” to start a fund to help others.
A month later, “Kelly Anne was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and had a short time to live,” Dolan said. “My husband started talking about establishing a fund in her memory to help kids who are chronically ill or seriously disabled, to help with things insurance wouldn’t cover.”
Kelly Anne died Oct. 5, 1976. Her obituary brought in $8,000 to kick off the fund, Dolan said.
Almost a year later to the day, her youngest daughter, Kimmy — a third daughter, Kris, was the oldest — was diagnosed with a blood disorder and the Dolans’ nightmare started over again. In 1982, at age 4, Kimmy received a bone marrow transplant from her father at a hospital in Seattle, Wash., where the family had to stay 108 days, she said.
“Fortunately we had good insurance,” said Dolan, whose husband had a business. “You had to have insurance or $150,000 cash, or you were not accepted. I didn’t know if we were going to bring her back, that was the hardest part.”
Kimmy, now 39, survived the grueling procedure, but again the Dolans met many families for whom just making the trip was a hardship, she said.
Obtaining 501(c)3 status and her return to Chestnut Hill College to earn a degree in English and communications moved things forward, but “the biggest challenge was not having a path to follow,” Dolan said. “I felt like I was placed in the middle of a jungle with just a machete.
“It took a long time to figure out how to raise money,” she said, but she learned as a member of CHOP’s Childhood Cancer Advisory Committee, where she “put together the first long-time survivors program.”
The first big grant — $10,000 — came from Marilyn Steinbright’s Arcadia Foundation, which “was instrumental in giving me the confidence to go for grants,” said Dolan, who was later able to secure a $20,000 grant from CHOP. A 1991 story about the fund in the Philadelphia Inquirer “blew the lid off the cover,” she said.
“A half-million-dollar grant two years ago made a lot of things possible,” followed by another grant of $165,000, and others, she said. The goal is to set up an $8 million endowment for which it currently has $900,000.
Over the past 40 years the fund has aided more than 27,000 families in crisis in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware referred by social workers and health care professionals.
“We’ve heard some awful stories and situations. … There are issues out there that will blow your mind,” Dolan said.
Kelly Anne means “graceful fighter,” and at some point “it dawned on me that the fund exists because she lived,” Dolan said. “We’re not changing the world or finding cures, but lifting the spirits of people.”
Wendy Graham took over as executive director upon Dolan’s retirement, but “I will always be a member of the board,” Dolan said.
The Kelly Anne Dolan Memorial Fund will mark its milestone and celebrate Dolan’s retirement at a 40th Anniversary Gala Oct. 9, 4 to 9 p.m. at Crystal Tea Room, 100 E. Penn Square, Philadelphia. The event is supported by Fort Washington-based Timoney Knox, LLP, a supporter since the fund’s inception. Fox 29’s Karen Hepp will host the event, which features a four-hour premium open bar, food stations and music.
For tickets, go to https://www.dolanfund.org/events/2016anniversary.cfm.