Medical advancements have given many of our loved ones the gift of a longer life. But that longevity has also resulted in a growing population of elderly people requiring special home care and an increase in special needs children who also require extra attention. To meet that demand, more and more Long Islanders have become family caregivers; some are natural in the role, others are less certain.
Add to this mix a turbulent economy as well as skyrocketing health costs, and the impact of becoming a caregiver can be very stressful and demanding, both emotionally and physically. An illness can be financially devastating and many caregivers are thrust into the role without time to adjust to the change in their lifestyle, or they don’t have access to the resources that are available to them. They can get overwhelmed quickly.
Two students, Jennifer Kielawa and Maria Pezzino, both Juniors at Walt Whitman High School, heard about a local mother from Huntington who had three young children with juvenile arthritis. “I couldn’t imagine taking care of three children with special needs and myself,” Jennifer recalls. The woman’s situation inspired the teens to do some research where they learned that millions of Americans provide care to the elderly, disabled or chronically ill, typically without pay or other compensation. According to the National Family Caregivers Association, more than 65 million people spend an average of 20 hours per week administering this type of care.
Jennifer and Maria decided that they would like to acknowledge the selfless sacrifices made by Long Island family caregivers. With the help of Jen’s mother, Patti Kielawa, who is also the vice president and business development officer of Empire National Bank, they founded Caregivers for Life (CFL), in 2009 as a non-profit group whose mission is to reward family members that provide extended round-the-clock care for those in need. Patti explained that the teens were motivated to act because “they imagined that kind of situation happening in their own family.”
Haley Kammerling, another CFL founding member and classmate of Jen and Maria, gives Patti much of the credit for doing the ground work to set up their group. “We had a lot of help getting this going,” Haley says. Other members of the CFL are from John Glenn and Harborfields high schools.
Among its goals, CFL endeavors to give caregivers access to resources so they can learn stress relief, as well as have some much-needed relaxation and fun. The teens believe that there is a definite need to acknowledge the caregivers’ unsung efforts and to find a way to give respite from their daily, exhausting routines. Their gifts let caregivers spend some quality time alone with another child or have a night out with a spouse or significant other. With that idea in mind, CFL volunteers have gone into their community to solicit donors and sponsors for gifts to award to the caregivers. Donations have included a party for 20 people given to a daughter who helped her mother during her breast cancer treatment that was contributed by Dave and Buster’s, meals at local restaurants and even horseback riding. “We go door to door for donations,” Jen explains, adding that the positive response from the business community has been gratifying. The group is also hosting its first fundraiser on November 4th at Jericho Terrace in Mineola where they will be acknowledging about 25 caregiver honorees for their devotion to their family.
While the students are getting a real-world education in helping others, they are also gaining first-hand experience in business development and operations. Most importantly, they get an opportunity to see beyond themselves and cultivate a deeper sense of compassion that, it’s hoped, they will possess for the rest of their lives.
In just a few short months, CFL has made great strides in being recognized throughout the community. Indeed, the first week in November has been designated as Family Caregiver Appreciation Week in Suffolk County by Legislator Lou D’Amaro (D-Huntington Station), who has acknowledged the teenagers hard work.
Patti was beaming with pride as Jennifer, Maria and Haley talked about finding more resources and support for these hard-pressed families. “The time is right to do something for these special caregivers!” says Jennifer.
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