When they created the Breathing Room Foundation in 1997, the late Diane Fitzgerald and her husband, Bernie, had a well-informed vision of how best to help families cope with cancer.
The Jenkintown couple and their three young children had been receiving an abundance of practical assistance from relatives, friends, acquaintances, and total strangers during Diane’s six-year breast cancer battle. Meal delivery, rides to soccer practice for the kids, even tree-trimming work — “We’re still wondering who did that,” said Bernie Fitzgerald — provided precious respites from the struggle against a relentless foe. They offered the family a welcome bit of breathing room.
“We wanted our foundation to recognize families who inspire others by the way they face up to this disease,” he said. “We wanted to honor people who continue to create a life for their children and are showing others how strong people can be. We wanted to say thank-you by helping them.”
Two months after the Breathing Room Foundation began assisting its first client, Diane Fitzgerald died at age 35 on April 10, 1997. The nonprofit she and her husband endowed recently moved to new offices in Elkins Park. Her sister, Mary Ellen Fitzgerald, has served as executive director since 2005.
“We serve 1,200 families a year,” said Mary Ellen, a radiologic technician who lives in Abington. Her husband, Paul, is Bernie’s brother.
“Our 500 volunteers give these families a sense that they’re not alone, that they have people behind them. Doing so gives the families — and the volunteers — strength and hope,” she said.
Like pretty much everything and everyone else, the foundation has had to adapt to the restrictions and disruptions of the pandemic. Volunteers have shifted from making and delivering meals to packing and delivering COVID-19 relief packages that include nonperishable food, paper products, cleaning supplies, and other essentials.
Contacts between volunteers and families are mostly maintained by phone and email these days. But the foundation continues to use a professional transportation service to take patients to and from chemotherapy, radiation, and other treatments.
“Many of our Philadelphia families take public transportation to their appointments, but they couldn’t do that because of the pandemic,” said Mary Ellen Fitzgerald, noting that cancer treatments can affect the immune system. “But we’ve been able to keep those round-trips running” and the number this year reached 3,000, she said.
Potential recipient families are referred mainly by social workers or caregivers, but sometimes by word of mouth. The only requirement is that a family member be undergoing active cancer treatment; there is no minimum or maximum income criteria. The service area includes all of Philadelphia, much of Montgomery and Delaware Counties, and portions of Bucks and Chester Counties.
“You can see the work impacting the families locally, and directly,” said Cherie Crosby, a longtime volunteer who lives in Norristown. She teaches early childhood and child development classes at Manor College, where some of her students are Breathing Room volunteers as well.
“One year the students put together Easter baskets, and most recently we sponsored a Thanksgiving meal for a family in Norristown,” said Crosby. “The family that got the meal shared it with others. They were blessed, and they blessed someone else.”
Breathing Room volunteers helped Jennifer Lowman’s family while her late husband, Matthew Ancideo, underwent cancer treatment. Following his death in 2017, Lowman and her children became volunteers and now sponsor another family through the foundation.
“When the volunteers came into our lives, they were amazing,” said Lowman, who lives in Glenside. “The kids were 8 and 10, and at Christmas they pulled gift after gift from the bags the volunteers brought. Easter was the same way. And the volunteers would bring over snack bags that were great for when for my husband had to go to radiation treatment.”
Megan Walker’s daughter Lily is a 16-year-old Haverford Township High School sophomore. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor last year, which is when the Breathing Room volunteers first arrived at the family’s Havertown home.
“What I love about them is they focus on the siblings, too,” said Walker, a mother of four. Lily, she said, has been doing well, “but a cancer diagnosis affects the whole family, and the Breathing Room takes care of the whole family.”
“Those snack bags really do come in handy, because a lot of times, with four kids and doctors’ appointments and so on, it’s like you’re living in your car,” she added. “Whether through friends and family or unexpected angels like the Breathing Room, it’s good to feel you have a big team behind you.”