Peggy took this tragedy, the knowledge she gained after having not one but two severely ill daughters - the youngest of her three girls, Kim, ultimately recovered from her leukemia - and transformed the experience into a gift of helping others.
On Sunday, at a Crystal Tea Room reception in the Wanamaker Building, the Kelly Anne Dolan Fund will celebrate 35 years and the 20,000 families it has assisted since the young girl's death.
"You can't help but be aware when you spend a lot of time in Children's Hospital. It becomes a community unto itself," Dolan says in her Lower Gwynedd home. She met parents so financially strapped that they skipped meals and even buried their children in Styrofoam caskets.
The Dolan Fund administers assistance, through referrals from social workers and other health-care professionals, for the ancillary expenses accrued by families with seriously sick children - rent, utility bills, transportation, child care, air conditioners for those with severe respiratory ailments, funeral costs. Nothing can prepare a family for having a desperately ill child, "but the more we can take off their plate and help, the better," Dolan says. Since its inception, the fund has disbursed $8 million, as well as noncash donations.
Dolan's organization provides advocacy and education for families negotiating the complex shoals of a medical crisis, as well as outings and celebrations for parents and children who need some joy. Dolan is the fund's executive director. Her husband died in 1995, a year after the family printing business went bankrupt.
The fund "helps make life even out a bit when you really need it," says Merrie Coates of Philadelphia, who has five children with a bleeding disease. Her youngest also has autism and is prone to aggression. The fund helped buy exercise equipment Will needed, as well as an air conditioner for his severe asthma. Coates says, "The Dolan Fund was so gracious and so quick."
The fund's donations range from $150 to $500, small compared with monumental medical bills, but big enough to make a difference for struggling families. Dolan's new goal is to double the top donations she can provide families with critical needs.
"Peggy kind of became my real-life hero. She makes the best out of any situation," says Andy White of Kennett Square, whose 18-year-old daughter, Sara, has spina bifida and an underdeveloped lung, requiring round-the-clock assistance. Andy and his wife, also named Peggy, first met Dolan when Sara was 3.
The Whites received assistance to help with their electric bills, steep because of the various machines that keep Sara alive, and to acquire a handicapped van. "Peggy taught us how to advocate for ourselves, how to find funding." In turn, they've raised money for the Dolan Fund through various civic groups. "I have seen her touch 50 to 100 other families, people who rarely have a little respite from caring for their children."
Launching a charity "is like giving birth to twins that never get out of the infancy stage. You can't put it down," says Dolan, who was never tempted. "I haven't been able to hug or see my daughter for all these years, but I get all this affirmation of what we do by helping others."
Karen Heller: For Information
To make a contribution or purchase tickets to the 35th anniversary reception, phone 215-643-0763 or go to www.dolanfund.org
Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, email@example.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller