From lemons to lemonade
How one breast-cancer survivor is helping other women battle the disease with The Lemonade Fund.
“To be ill and also suffer from poor financial conditions is extremely difficult,” Jennah wrote to the fund’s founder, Shari Mendes of Ra’anana. The grant enables her to visit her siblings when she needs them, purchase treatments for her chemotherapy side effects, and also buy her daughter books for school.
“This donation… gives me peace of mind and strength to continue to cope,” Jennah wrote.
Mendes firmly believes that easing the financial burden of breast-cancer patients also helps them heal.
“When you’re stressed about money, it’s hard to get well. If you could be calmer about your financial situation it could impact recovery. I think this helps just like medicine helps.”
Mendes inaugurated the fund on August 7, 2011, precisely 12 months after a routine mammogram revealed what turned out to be early-stage breast cancer.
“I received the news that I had breast cancer on the Ninth of Av, one of the saddest days of the Jewish year. It seemed fitting to do something positive on the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis – specifically on a day that addresses ways to heal after destruction,” says the architect and mother of four.
During a year of treatment that successfully put her cancer into remission, Mendes wondered how financially strapped women were managing the costs of the disease.
“I remember during the beginning of the process, being astounded at the ancillary expenses,” she says.
“I was lucky because I had disability insurance, but many women don’t have any cushion. It is expensive to be sick. You and your spouse lose time from work.
Maybe you need extra child care and cleaning help, and perhaps you have to buy prostheses and a wig, and medications that aren’t covered by [national health insurance].
“There are a million things, and I thought people shouldn’t also have to be in a financial crisis when they’re enduring the worst stress they’ve ever been through. I can’t help cure their cancer, but I can help alleviate their financial burden.”
Mendes talked to other women and to social workers at hospital breast-cancer centers, coming away convinced that nothing like what she envisioned existed in Israel. The Israel Cancer Society, for example, gives NIS 1,000 grants, and another fund aids Ethiopian immigrants suffering from cancer. Mendes wanted to give a significant amount, and specifically to those with breast cancer.
“We definitely saw a big need, because all the existing funds are very small and sometimes it takes a while for the money to arrive,” says Amalia Magen, head social worker at the Breast Center at Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, where the fund’s first five grantees are patients. “This fund came really exactly in time.”
“A woman who needs something like breast reconstruction must come to the hospital many times over a few months, and in the meantime she cannot move or function well,” she explains.
Grants range from NIS 1,000 to NIS 4,500, depending on need. To keep administrative and overhead expenses to nearly nil, Mendes incorporated IBCERF under the umbrella of the Herzliya-based non-profit ESRA (English Speaking Residents Association) Welfare Fund. Only two months later, with the help of NIS 50,000 she raised through a single e-mail blast to acquaintances and family, she was in business.
Very quickly, word of the Lemonade Fund spread, and applications are coming on behalf of women from all walks of life – Jews and Arabs, new immigrants and longtime Israelis. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in Israel, with about 4,000 new cases every year.
Seeing that the need is greater than she anticipated, Mendes is now appealing for funds more publicly.
“Hospital social workers all over Israel have learned about the fund, and when a patient is desperately poor they urge them to apply. Many of these women are single with children, and they and their families suffer tremendously due to the additional burden of a serious illness.”
Adele Hunter, head of ESRA’s Welfare Committee, explains that ESRA has been giving to Israel’s needy for more than 20 years through social-welfare departments.
A committee comprised mainly of retired social workers screens applications every month.
“Shari’s fund is run along the same lines,” says Hunter. “We invite Shari to review the applications that come in from oncology department social workers.
Together we decide which ones meet the criteria and how much we can give.”
Mendes devised a rigorous application process, open only to those in their first year post-diagnosis.
“It’s important to me that it be transparent,” she says.
“We’re giving grants, not asking for money back, so we really need to vet the applications.”
Those who are accepted get a check a week later, and their hospital social worker receives a letter with all the details.
Magen says up to 30 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each month at Meir alone. She sends IBCERF applications only for women in the most severe straits.
“Now I have a 46-year-old woman who has four children – one with special needs – and an unemployed husband, and her salary was feeding the family.
Now she has to go through breast surgery and chemotherapy, and I’m so happy to tell her that maybe Shari Mendes can help her immediately – not only when the effects of the chemo get bad.”
Another Meir Medical Center patient, a lowincome, 32-year-old mother of a toddler and an infant, was diagnosed during pregnancy and is now facing a mastectomy. “She got help from the Lemonade Fund, and she didn’t know how to get through this otherwise,” says Magen. “The grants also help their spirits, to know someone wants to help them.
This has a big psychological impact.”
Mendes’ nickname for IBCERF refers to the philosophy of making sweet lemonade out of the sour lemons one receives in life. “I like the name ‘Lemonade Fund’ because that’s the message we try to transmit,” says Magen. “You have a great crisis, but from this you can rise above and realize the support you have, including your own strengths to cope. The fund can help you see a new opportunity.”
“Shari’s got a very open heart and really wants to make a difference,” adds Hunter. “If she had more money, she’d give more money.”
Mendes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the IBCERF page on Facebook.