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This charity founded in memory of Fred DiBona is a godsend to families with very sick children.

Fred's Footsteps — named in honor of G. Fred DiBona Jr., the Independence Blue Cross CEO who died in 2005 — provides grants to families who have seriously ill children.

Nurse Joe Lavin (top left) pushes 9 year old Isabella Wallace into the handicapped-accessible van and into the hands of Isabella’s stepmother Kiersten Stevens as Emily Cheramie-Walz, of Fred’s Footsteps, looks on outside the child's Magnolia home.
Nurse Joe Lavin (top left) pushes 9 year old Isabella Wallace into the handicapped-accessible van and into the hands of Isabella’s stepmother Kiersten Stevens as Emily Cheramie-Walz, of Fred’s Footsteps, looks on outside the child's Magnolia home.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

For Isabella Wallace and her parents, the van with the hydraulic lift has been a game-changer.

CJ Hines and his family have especially appreciated the holiday gift cards, the caring emails, and the warm and fuzzy blankets.

And to Tom and Jennifer Scattolino, Fred’s Footsteps — which assists families of acutely ill or medically fragile children — is like a devoted neighbor or a friend to them and their youngest son, Nicholas.

“Ever since we got on their radar,” Tom said, “it’s been nothing but love.”

A private philanthropic organization, Fred’s Footsteps was founded in 2005 in memory of G. Fred DiBona Jr., the lawyer, civic booster, and insurance executive under whose leadership Independence Blue Cross became a powerhouse. The company’s blue-glass headquarters at 19th and Market in Center City is named for him.

In a typical year, Fred’s Footsteps helps about 100 working families pay household and other non-medical bills related to their children’s care. But in anything-but-typical 2020, the organization launched a COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund and a Temporary Assistance Program that brought the number of families served to 497 and increased the amount of overall assistance from about $600,000 to nearly $800,000.

“My dad always saw the good in people,” said Christine DiBona Lobley, executive director of Fred’s Footsteps.

Fred DiBona, who grew up in South Philly, waged a fierce battle against kidney cancer and went to work regularly until the week before he died, at 53, on Jan. 11, 2005. Almost immediately, friends and business associates who knew of his many compassionate acts on behalf of people in need suggested the family consider how best to honor that legacy.

Christine, her mother, Sylvia, and others did research on what sort of family and health-related mission would be most beneficial in the region. With the promise of a large private donation and the efforts of a network of supporters, Fred’s Footsteps launched just nine months after the man who inspired it passed away.

“Giving people even a small chance to overcome insurmountable odds can make such a huge difference ... in ways that are truly immeasurable,” said Lobley.

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The goal of Fred’s Footsteps is to ease the financial, logistical, and emotional burdens on families with injured, acutely ill, or chronically ill children by temporarily paying mortgages, rent, utility bills, or other expenses. The period of assistance generally runs 12 months and the amount is capped at $10,000, but a family in extreme circumstances may re-apply.

The organization also underwrites the cost of wheelchair ramps and other access and safety modifications to a child’s home — or, in Isabella Wallace’s case, provide a grant for the down payment her parents needed to purchase a four-year-old modified van.

“That kind of support changes your outlook on things,” said Isabella’s stepmom, Kiersten Stevens, outside the family’s Magnolia home. Isabella, 9, was born with a chromosomal abnormality, microcephaly, and a seizure disorder; she attends the St. John of God school in Deptford. Stevens and her husband, a pest control technician, were able to purchase the 2016 van with the help of a Fred’s Footsteps grant.

Families like Isabella’s are referred primarily by social workers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Nemours Children’s Hospital, and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. The Grant Advisory Committee of Fred’s Footsteps reviews as many as a dozen applications a month.

“We go beyond the medical nuts and bolts to provide more holistic support to improve the quality of life for families,” grant advisory committee member Gregory D. Garber said. A longtime friend of the DiBona family who described Fred as “a big-hearted guy,” Garber has been with Fred’s Footsteps since the beginning.

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“The pandemic has made life much more difficult for families who already are trying to do their best,” he said. “COVID-19 is an anxiety-producing event on top of what is already an anxiety-producing event.”

A parent may have been laid off due to business closures, or work fewer hours in order to devote nearly full time to home care, hospital stays, and transportation to medical appointments. Even households with two working parents can quickly find themselves facing financial hardship.

“Having a seriously ill or injured child is devastating,” Garber said. “The niche Fred’s Footsteps has carved out is helping people [avoid] so much more devastation.”

Given the pandemic’s disruptions, Friends of Fred’s — a group for young professionals who volunteer, raise money, and donate to the cause — also has had to pivot. Tamara Scott, a social media strategist and active member of the group, which since 2019 has raised $25,000 for Fred’s Footsteps, said they’ve “gotten creative with virtual events and online giving platforms” and have grown to several hundred members.

What helps, Scott said, are the extraordinary stories told by Fred’s Footsteps families.

Erica Hines’ son, CJ, has lived with neurofibromatosis for all of his 18 years. The tumors resulting from this chronic and incurable condition have led to eight surgeries and, more recently, his loss of mobility.

But CJ, a major Philly sports fan and a senior at Kingsway Regional High School in Gloucester County, has already been admitted to Rowan University. He’s also waiting to hear from two other colleges and plans to study computer engineering.

“He’s a trooper,” said Erica, a corporate account manager who lives with her son and his two siblings in Sewell. “When CJ started having a lot of trouble with walking, we had to make a lot of changes to our home, and [Fred’s Footsteps] has been more than amazing.

“When someone’s going through a tough time — like being able to walk, and then not being able to walk — the little gifts they send are wonderful,” she said, adding that Fred’s Footsteps “is on the path with you. You know you’re not going through this super tough time alone.”

Fred’s Footsteps was unknown to Tom and Jennifer Scattolino, of Chadds Ford, until their son Nicholas, then 9, began having seizures last year. He was hospitalized for 48 days, under quarantine with his mother.

Tom works in manufacturing and his wife had been working as a library paraprofessional. But Nicholas’s mysterious illness — he is recovering, but it remains undiagnosed — turned the family’s life upside down. A month’s worth of bill-paying assistance from Fred’s Footsteps made an enormous difference.

“It’s hard to ask for help,” Jennifer said, adding that with Fred’s Footsteps, “help just shows up.”

“My father had a real interest in connecting with people in meaningful ways ... which really was the inspiration for Fred’s Footsteps,” Lobley said.

“Now we have a lot of new supporters who never knew my dad, and it has come full circle,” she said. “For me to be able to teach my children the values he taught me, through this organization, is really special.”