February 11 2017

She Makes Sick Kids Smile Again – Introducing Jen Rubino

Imagine being a kid in a hospital.  Not good, right?  Well, now imagine a #girlboss rockstar who comes along and based on her own experience as a kid in a hospital finds a way to make that experience a whole lot brighter.  Read on and check out cardsforhospitalizedkids.com to meet Jen Rubino, learn about Cards for Hospitalized Kids and find out how you can make a difference in a sick child’s life:

1. What inspired you to start Cards for Hospitalized Kids?
My own experiences as a “hospitalized kid” inspired me to start Cards for Hospitalized Kids (CFHK). Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the hospital undergoing surgeries. I experienced firsthand the difficulties faced by hospitalized kids. I knew I wanted to use my experiences to help other kids one day. After my thirteenth surgery, I received a handmade card from a hospital volunteer. The card really brightened my day and strengthened my spirit during my most difficult recovery. The experience gave me the idea of CFHK.

2. How did you get started? What did you do first? 

CFHK started small, in March of 2011, with clubs at my school making cards for local hospitals. That summer, I partnered with the local library to host monthly events. From there, CFHK began to grow: other schools got involved and local restaurants started hosting fundraisers for CFHK.  Within a few months, we were giving cards monthly to all of the ten hospitals in Illinois that treat kids. It was an established local group at that point.

In fall 2011, I launched a website for CFHK and began utilizing social media to spread the word. The website was crucial because it enabled anyone to get involved regardless of location. People anywhere could now make cards, using the card-making guidelines on the website, and then send them to CFHK for distribution.  From there, CFHK began to blossom into a national charity.

3. Tell us about some of the celebrities you have involved. How did you connect to them?
We’ve had great celebrity and athlete involvement. Lauren Conrad, Lucy Hale, Cody Simpson, Jesse McCartney and Giuliana Rancic are a few of the celebrities that have gotten involved. Olympians and professional athletes have gotten involved, as well.

When I founded CFHK, I knew there was an opportunity for celebrities to help by spreading the word on social media and signing autographs for kids to receive with the cards. I had some contacts at USA Gymnastics and I began by reaching out to them. This led to multiple World and Olympic champion gymnasts getting involved. It also helped me establish a process for reaching out to an agent or representative, which I could use for getting celebrities involved, too. From there, I was able to start getting celebrities involved.

It’s been so incredible to see the smiles on the patients’ faces when they receive an autograph from their favorite celebrity inside their card from CFHK.
Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman is one of my favorite supporters. She became involved in 2011. At the time, she was a world champion and member of the US national team. She went on to win gold at the 2012 Olympics and 2016 Olympics. She became famous worldwide after the Olympics and the fact that she continued to care about my charity meant so much. I’m very appreciative of all she’s done for CFHK as well as me personally.
My dream when I was a gymnast was always to make the 2012 Olympics. My coach, who had coached two previous Olympians, thought I had a real shot. But I had to stop competing when I began getting sick at age 10, at level 9.
After the 2012 Olympics, the team came to Chicago on their “Tour of Gymnastics Champions”. Aly gave my dad, who had also been a gymnast, and I, a pass to meet the team after the show. It meant so much to us because it made us feel like we were still connected to the 2012 games in some way. We’ll always be grateful to Aly for giving us that. She’s also tweeted get-well messages after a couple of my surgeries, which I really appreciate it.

4. Where are you in school and what are you studying?

I’m a sophomore studying International Affairs at George Washington University (GWU) in DC. I did my first year at Georgetown University, also in DC, which was great. But I decided to transfer to GWU because I wanted to be closer in the city area of DC both for internship opportunities and personally.  Clubs and sororities at GU and GWU are involved which CFHK.

I took this semester off because to have one last surgery. I’ve been doing well health wise; I’m walking again, am active and no longer need surgeries for active health issues. I was still dealing with residual pain from my reconstructive surgery, though. I finally decided to have surgery to treat that pain. The surgery went well. I look forward to returning to school in May.

5. You’ve had your share of life challenges and health challenges. How did they change how you think about life?

The experiences definitely changed my perspective on life and made me more appreciative of the little things in life that many people my age often take for granted. I learned to be more positive and to appreciate the positive in all situations.
I feel like the experiences I had, medically and personally, will really either break you or make you stronger. For me, I became stronger and more resilient. It also made me more determined to make something of myself and to go after my goals whether in school, activities, career, etc. I wouldn’t have wished those experiences on myself or anyone else but I am thankful for many of the lessons I’ve learned as a result. I think it’s prepared me to make a bigger impact on the world.

6. How do you find the time to run your business and be a college student?

It’s actually easier than what I had to manage in high school when CFHK had first started. Back then, I was basically doing all of the work for CFHK by myself in terms of day to day tasks such as: receiving packages, sorting the cards, typing thank-you letters, getting them ready for distribution etc., in addition to running the website, social media, returning emails, doing media, planning etc. I had to manage all that along with taking AP Classes. Plus, I was still having surgeries and hospital stays myself. It was very difficult but I found a way to make it work because I was so passionate about CFHK. When you’re just starting a business or charity, there is a period where you essentially have to do it all on your own and work overtime. That is just how it is. Now, I have amazing volunteers to help with all the day-to-day tasks, which is very helpful.

Something that helps a lot is trying to work ahead in classes. That’s not always possibly entirely but at least for days when there are events or programs.

Overall, it’s just important to have time management and to plan. I want to make sure I have enough time for schoolwork, CFHK stuff, campus activities, career opportunities as well as just hanging out with friends and enjoying the college experience.

7. How do you see your company growing?

CFHK continues to grow every year, which I am thankful for. The number of cards that we receive yearly grows every year. We received thousands of Christmas cards this year, at least 10,000. It was amazing. I think that will continue to expand.

This year in particular I anticipate, based on our work thus far, that we will be gaining more celebrity supporters, reaching new hospitals and Ronald McDonald Houses. I think we will continue expanding to new hospitals and possibly even expanding outside the US someday.

We sometimes receive items such as blankets, stuffed animals, coloring books, etc. Down the road, I also see CFHK expanding to provide more items like this in addition to cards. We are working on a bracelet for kids to receive at the end of their treatment or hospital stay. This would be meant for kids who battled long-term illnesses or treatments, such as a cancer patient who spends 2 years on chemo, to receive at the end as a way for them to remember their battle by. I’m excited about it.

Personally, I hope to share the story and mission of CFHK through more public speaking and possibly writing a book someday.

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8. How can we get involved? Do you do anything with sororities or otherwise on campus?

People can get involved by making cards on their own or with a group. Campus groups, as well as sororities, at schools across the country have gotten involved. We have supplemental materials, such as fact-sheets, that students can use for hosting card-making events/sessions. Students can also earn service hours.

Making cards for CFHK is a great activity for students because it’s a chance to get creative and have fun while making a difference. I think that seeing something as simple as a card make an impact helps young people realize their capacity to make a difference.

We distribute “general” cards every month and holiday cards for all major holidays. The “Make Cards” section of our website, www.cardsforhospitalizedkids.com, has all the details for making cards (where to send them, what to write, making cards as a group, etc.).

9. What three words would you use to describe yourself?

Courageous, compassionate, fun.

10. Favorite quote, song or other inspiration?

I love the quote “Be the change you want to see in the world”

Bethany Hamilton, inspiration behind the movie “Soul Surfer”, has also always been a big inspiration for me. I always admired how she used her own hardship to help others by through her foundation and initiatives to inspire people.

Thanks Jen.  We know what inspires us…you do!!  

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