Raquel Rohlfing was desperate. Her 4-year-old son, Mikalo, had just relapsed with leukemia. He would need a bone marrow transplant. Three years of dealing with cancer had long since depleted her savings; in fact, the single mother and her son had been living in homeless shelters, Mikalo often trailing an IV pole.
"I told the hospital I had nowhere to go," says Rohlfing, 36, a cheery woman who wears a necklace with the words, "Live Strong Mikalo."
That's when she got a phone call that changed everything. "I clearly remember her saying, 'Don't worry about it. We'll take care of it,' " Rohlfing recalls. "She's like an angel to me."
The angel was Carla Tardif, executive director of the Family Reach Foundation, a nonprofit that provides financial relief and support to families with children fighting cancer. Within a month, Rohlfing and Mikalo were in their own apartment. Mikalo had his transplant, and though there have been setbacks, he has been in remission for two years.
"Without their help, I don't know where I'd be," says Rohlfing on a recent day in the bare-bones Family Reach office in Boston. Mikalo, who turned 7 that day, fiddled with his superheroes while Rohlfing and Tardif talked about his progress, and the foundation.
Tardif's path to Family Reach was a pretty straight one. "There are no coincidences," is the way she puts it. "I'm where I'm meant to be."
Tardif grew up in Arlington and went to Syracuse University, where she majored in English. Long "a bleeding heart," she'd been a candy-striper hospital volunteer in middle school. After college, she went to work with Jerry Lewis at the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
While at the MDA, Tardif reconnected with two of her college friends; one of them, Paul Frase, had a son born with a rare form of the disease. The other, Pat Kelly, reached out to Tardif with the news. Frase and Kelly were close; football teammates at Syracuse, they played together for the New York Jets.
After Kelly's call to Tardif, the three classmates founded Joshua Frase Foundation's Muscle Dream Team gala to raise money for muscular dystrophy.
Later, Tardif started her own firm helping nonprofits raise money for various causes. She remained in touch with Frase and Kelly and was devastated when Kelly was diagnosed with brain cancer. "He was 6-feet-6, larger than life, drop-dead gorgeous, and to watch cancer take him down was the most heart-wrenching thing," says Tardif, 47.
In 2003, at age 37, Kelly died, but not before extracting a promise from her. "I was holding his hand and he looked at me and said, 'Promise me you're going to help these families,' " says Tardif. "I promised him, but I walked out of that room not knowing how to do it."
What Kelly had envisioned — and Tardif had promised — was helping families with children dealing with cancer. Not with the medical issues; the hospitals were for that. But with an insidious side effect of the disease: financial ruin.
During his treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Kelly, who became a managing director at Bean Stearns after leaving the NFL, had seen families not only struggling with a devastating diagnosis, but with bills piling up at home.
"Pat would call me and say, 'There's a mom with a 2-year-old who has brain cancer and she doesn't have the money to get her 4-year-old to day care. You have to do something,' " Tardif recalls. "Or, 'There's a husband and wife fighting at the vending machine over food. Do something.' "
The tales were eye-opening. "On top of watching your child suffer, people get threatening eviction notices, calls from collection agencies, or they can't make a car payment so they lose the car and can't get their child to treatment," says Tardif.
Medical hardship is one of the leading causes of personal bankruptcy in the nation. According to a Harvard University study, more than 62 percent of bankruptcies are caused by overwhelming medical expenses — and cancer is the most costly. "It's because a parent needs to stop working to take care of the child," says Tardif. "The average cancer treatment without complications is two years."
But Tardif had her own thriving fund-raising business and two young children. What could she do to keep the deathbed promise she had made?
"I had Pat's picture on my desk," says Tardif, an energetic woman with a ready smile. "Many days I'd turn it around so he'd stop looking at me. Finally, I hit a wall."
She called her clients and told them she was closing her business. She had offices in Los Angeles and Boston, and was busy doing big celebrity fund-raisers. But the promise weighed heavy on her.
When she called one of her major clients, the Joslin Diabetes Center, she spoke to Rick Morello, a vice president, told him she was closing up shop, and why.
Morello told her that he had lost a sister to cancer and that his family, and another, had started the Family Reach Foundation to address the financial crises that cancer brings. The second partner was the family of Christopher Colangelo, who had lost his fight with neuroblastoma at age 11. The foundation, like the families, was based in New Jersey.
Would she be interested? Morello asked.
"I said, 'That's it! Give it to me!'" Tardif says. "They had already figured it out. Everything was in place. I just had to step in and turn up the volume."
In 2008, she became their development director and in January she was named executive director. Though Family Reach maintains its headquarters in Parsippany, N.J., Tardif works out of an office here with a handful of staffers. From a foundation that raised $200,000 a year helping families in four different hospitals, Family Reach now has 16 hospital partners nationwide. The goal is to raise, and spend, $1.3 million this year.
"She has an incredible passion for the mission and combines that with her years of experience in development," says Morello, who is president of the board.
Indeed, celebrity athletes and chefs play a big role in her fund-raising events. In May, Ming Tsai brought in chefs to cook in the ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton. On Sept. 18, Matt Damon will be cooking at the Ritz in New York, with Tsai and some other chefs. In November, the foundation will hold a Culture & Caring art show and reception at the Liberty Hotel, with the art work done by children in treatment.
"Rent and mortgage are big things we do," says Tardif, who also serves on the board of Damon's Water.org, which brings clean water to developing countries. "Keeping a roof over their heads, keeping utilities on, especially in the winter."
Last year, one of her families slept on the kitchen floor with the oven on for heat, including a 3-year-old with leukemia. Family Reach made sure the oil tank was full.
Car payments are important, too. "Cars have been repossessed and so the mother can't get the child to treatment," says Tardif.
Families are referred through hospital social workers, each of whom has a budget alloted by the foundation. In extreme cases, such as Raquel and Mikalo, the foundation may donate extra funds, often with the help of individual donors responding to the crisis.
"The social workers are our front lines, they really know the families and can tap into their Family Reach budget," says Tardif.
Recently, she got a call from a social worker at the Jimmy Fund Clinic at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Could the foundation cover parking tickets?
"My knee-jerk reaction was no," Tardif recalls. But then she heard the story: a single mother of five was packing all the kids into the car to go to the clinic, where the oldest was being treated for cancer. She couldn't afford the garage, so she parked at meters. And got lots of tickets — $900 worth, at which point her car was towed.
Tardif paid the $900, plus $100 to get the car back. The woman wept when she was told.
"What I've learned is that it's about so much more than money," Tardif says. "That someone cares and gets it, has a really profound effect on families."
Just ask Raquel Rohlfing, who at fund-raisers tells her story. Homeless, with a son who had undergone a bone marrow transplant, she got a call from Tardif, who arranged payment for a year's rent on a Winchester apartment, not far from her own house. Since then, Mikalo and Tardif's son Drew, who is a few years older, have become schoolmates and friends.
Tardif's husband, a builder, put in a new kitchen and floors, and fixed the bathroom in the apartment. But Tardif wasn't finished. She is also executive director of Music Drives Us, the nonprofit founded by car magnate Ernie Boch Jr. Rohlfing needed a job, and Tardif needed help, so she hired her at Boch's foundation.
As the two women tell the story, Rohlfing — with a home, a job, and a healthy son — is all smiles. So is Tardif, but that doesn't keep her from worrying about the next family. "We support 500 families a year, but there's so much more to do," she says.
Bella English can be reached at email@example.com.