Did you ever wonder how some people enlist into their respective professions? What makes somebody want to be a doctor, astronaut, an attorney or whatever they decide to be? Well, I had the chance to catch up with Michele Hall-Duncan and find out how she became the Executive Director of the enCourage Kids Foundation and how the organization has sustained the highs and lows of fundraising. Her story is inspirational because of her and her teams determination and vision to serve up smiles for children facing a variety of health issues – from those receiving chemo treatments in a clinic to those who live with a chronic illness that may not be visible.
Tell us about the journey that led you to become the Executive Director of enCourage Kids Foundation.
It’s a great story! I’d already been volunteering with enCourage Kids for about four years when my company was bought out by a larger entity and our department was dissolved. At the same time the program coordinator was scheduled for maternity leave. I agreed to cover for her, for just three months, while I decided my next career move. That was over 20 years ago. Our kids, families and hospital partners made me want to stay and work hard to deliver the best programming possible.
Tell us about the programs that enCourage Kids offers.
Our six core programs help sick kids and families combat the daily challenges they face. Our Pediatric Hospital Support Program provides direct support to pediatric units for projects that the hospital budget cannot often support. We’ve funded over 800 projects at a total of nearly 15 million dollars over the past two decades. We’re ensuring that these patients have art, music and horticultural therapy, wheelchair accessible transportation, cutting edge technology, child friendly environments and so much more. We collaborate directly with the hospitals to bring these projects to life. We’ve renovated 33 drab, scary hospital treatment rooms through our Care Room program. It makes a huge difference for a child when they are having a medical procedure to be in a beautiful environment. Our Tablet program uses custom apps to distract, entertain and educate young patients during their hospital stay. Through, our Send A Smile, Send A Bear program our generous donors have placed over 27,000 new, hygienic, cuddly teddy bears in the arms of hospitalized children. Entertainers trained to work in the hospital setting bring our Hospital Happenings program to life. We sponsor clowns, musicians, caricature artists and even a harpist who plays in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). She calms those beautiful little babies down so they can grow big and strong. Last but not least, our Escapes program allows kids and their families to share precious stress free time together at sporting events, theme parks, the circus, museums, movie days, our annual camp and tons of other amazing events. It’s all free of charge and we do all the planning.
How many children does enCourage Kids support?
Over 275,000 annually.
How have the fundraising efforts been over the past few years? Is there a lot of competition for donor dollars with the thousands of nonprofits out there?
Nonprofit fundraising is going through a major change. It’s becoming more and more challenging to raise funds. You have to be creative. Direct mail is down just as online fundraising is expanding. There has been an explosion in peer to peer fundraising. It is so crucial to have a clear and compelling mission and to be able to have all of your stakeholders convey that mission. Donors are also much more educated about their options and where their dollars should be going.
I know the organization hosts several events? How many events do you host annually? Do you find that different donors support different events or do they support the same ones each year? Do you have a favorite event?
We have an annual gala, our enCourage Kids Night at Citi Field, the Serving Up Smiles Tasting Event, an annual golf tournament and then our Young Professionals Committee hosts their signature rooftop event in May along with a Holiday Happy Hour event in December to support the bear program. Our board of directors is at the core of our major event fundraising efforts, always ensuring that we have great gala honorees and that our events are well attended. The YPC reaches out to young professionals in the metropolitan area. They are very engaged with the mission and their excitement is contagious. I love all of our events, but Serving Up Smiles is my favorite. It doesn’t feel like work, it’s so fun and exciting!
Do you have any celebrity ambassadors? Do you plan on getting certain notable celebrities behind the cause?
We have an incredible young ambassador in Carly Rose Sonenclar. Carly is a singer, songwriter who appeared on X Factor and has performed on Broadway and television. She has a huge heart and loves to come to our events to see our kids. And she’s only 17 years old! We’ve had some great gala hosts over the past several years, Holly Robinson Peete and Steve Schirripa most recently come to mind. I am really excited about chef Chris Nirschel hosting this year’s Serving Up Smiles. He made the commitment to host while at last year’s event and his energy and excitement is so incredible.
Speaking of your favorite event, The Serving Up Smiles Tasting Event is coming up on Monday, October 24, 2016. What restaurant and chefs will be attending?
Well first of all, I love great food. So this event is definitely a favorite. Last year was the first time we held this event. We transitioned from another fall event that was labor intensive where attendance was dwindling and it was time for a change. Our board really got behind the event and it delivered more than we all expected. The lineup of chefs and restaurants is amazing. The band is the best band you’ll ever hear. The venue is gorgeous with views of the Hudson River at sunset. Robert, Butter, Bryant Park Grill, City Bakery and Arcade Bakery are back this year and we’re super excited to welcome Ben and Jack’s Steakhouse, Cowfish, Buns Bar, Melt Shop, Kellari, El Toro Blanco, Café 2 and Terrace 5 at MoMA, Melt Bakery and Carlo’s Bakery. Buddy Valastro designed my wedding cake before he became the Cake Boss, so I love that they’re participating.
What’s up next for the enCourage Kids Foundation?
Supporting more sick kids and their families. It’s what we do best.
Can you tell us something about you that most people don’t know?
I am an introvert. Very shy. It shocks people because once you get to know me – I’m all in. However, when I go to a dinner party I’m always angling to get in the kitchen and help clean up. It’s hilarious.
To purchase tickets to Serving Up Smiles: https://encourage-kids.org