A Kid Again aims to take its healing message for families beyond central Ohio.
Oyauma Garrison's life swerved in October 2016, when his daughter went from cheerleading at a Gahanna Lincoln High School football game to collapsing and going into cardiac arrest at Nationwide Children's Hospital. She recovered, but the episode led Garrison to re-examine his professional and personal priorities.
Ultimately, Garrison decided he needed to make a major career shift, and in September 2017, he left a 20-year career in the insurance industry to accept a position as president and CEO of the newly-created national office for A Kid Again, a Columbus-based nonprofit focused on supporting the families of children with life-threatening illnesses. Garrison is applying his experience in the for-profit sector to help expand A Kid Again into a national presence over the next five years. “I decided to take on this opportunity to find a way to give back, and I absolutely enjoy the challenge of taking … a nonprofit organization and really making one of America's best-kept secrets into a known entity in other states,” Garrison says.
A Kid Again hosts events for the families of children with life-threatening illnesses, allowing them to participate in adventures like visits to Magic Mountain and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium or meet-ups with Ohio State University basketball players for free. Different from other wish-granting organizations, A Kid Again focuses on entire families and their need for ongoing opportunities to step outside of medical challenges and have fun together. A Kid Again has served nearly 52,000 families since its inception in 1995 through chapters in central Ohio, northern Ohio and southwest Ohio. Now, it hopes to move beyond the Buckeye State.
“There are over half a million kids in America facing some level of life-threatening illness,” Garrison says. “These kids are waiting on us and depending on us.”
Garrison and the A Kid Again board are reviewing 24 markets that have factors such as proximity to adventures and potential partnerships needed to establish self-sustaining local chapters within the next five years. An Indianapolis chapter will roll out in 2018, and research continues in states such as California, Washington, Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Garrison says each new location must start with a strong infrastructure of volunteers, donors and local leadership. “We want to be very thoughtful, very meaningful and very purposeful about how we enter the markets and how we sustain those chapters,” Garrison says, adding that the long-term vision also includes an international component.
Garrison notes that the financial and volunteer support of corporate partners such as Interim Healthcare, White Castle and Safelite AutoGlass also make the adventures possible. The growth plan will also expand A Kid Again's board to include national organizations not headquartered in Columbus.
A Kid Again board member Poe Timmons agrees that now is the time for growth. She and Jeffrey Damron, former CEO of the central Ohio chapter, created the organization more than 20 years ago after seeing the stress sick children can cause families. “We realized that children were living a much longer time with their illnesses than in the '80s, when many wish-granting organizations were founded, and we wanted to include families,” Timmons says, remembering the organization's first year operating from the kitchen table of a participating mom. “It's time; we're ready to grow.”
More than 51,000 families have been served since A Kid Again's inception. The nonprofit conducted an impact study with Nationwide Children's Hospital and Ohio State University and found that more than 90 percent of participating families reported improved emotional well-being and 86 percent of families said they are closer and stronger.
Carrie and Bruce Holt have four children, including 10-year-old son Toby, who was born with spina bifida. Carrie Holt says A Kid Again events help the family spend quality time together and benefit Toby's siblings, too.
“There are a lot of disadvantages when you have a sibling with special needs,” Carrie says. “We can use this to teach them gratefulness and show a positive side. They've been to NHL hockey games, and I didn't go until I was 30.”
Bruce Holt says it's also an opportunity to try new activities without spending time and money to find out your child can't or doesn't want to do them, or that a facility is not well equipped to accommodate a child's needs. “When you've got a 5- or 6-year-old with a lot of these things, it's not top of your list to say, ‘Let's take him to somewhere like Cedar Point and put him on a roller coaster,' ” Bruce says. “But he absolutely loved it.”
In his new leadership position, Garrison looks forward to introducing families in other states to the hope and happiness provided by A Kid Again. “Central Ohio is truly the heart of it all,” Garrison says. “A lot of great successes in America started right here, and A Kid Again is going to be another one of those.”
Mary Sterenberg is a freelance writer.