Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Paula DuPré Pesmen of ‘There With Care’ Is Helping To Change Our World
… It will be forever changing. I have always felt the need to get things fully together and have that sense of “we know it all now”. What I’ve learned is that starting and running a non-profit is forever changing based on the needs of those we serve and the impacts that daily life, economy, local and cultural events, etc. have on a non-profit.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paula DuPré Pesmen.
Paula DuPré Pesmen left a successful feature film career to found There With Care, now in its fifteenth year of service for families facing critical illness. During her time as the Associate Producer on the first three Harry Potter films, she was inspired by over 60 families of critically ill children through a program she started with film director Chris Columbus, welcoming them to the Harry Potter movie set for their wish-for-a-day. As founder of There With Care and a member of its Board of Directors, Paula oversees the daily operations of the organization.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In 2001, I was working as the Associate Producer on the first HARRY POTTER film in London. My husband wasn’t feeling well, and we soon learned that he had advanced colon cancer. We returned to the States where Curt dealt with aggressive treatments to shrink the tumor and an 8-hour experimental surgery. Fortunately, they were able to remove the cancer and after extensive chemotherapy, he was in remission.
After nine months, we returned to London and my first day back at work I received a misdirected call at my desk for a special request for a child who had 2–3 weeks to live. We coordinated a screening for her to see an early version of the film and that experience launched a program that opened the doors for critically ill children and their families to visit the sets. During the first three HARRY POTTER films, with directors Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron and the Cast and Crew, we welcomed more than 65 children and their families from around the world to join us on the POTTER sets.
During these visits, the children and their families spent the entire day seeing every department and it was beautiful to see how everyone joined in to make these days special memories. The young actors were warm and engaging; make-up artists would offer to put a lightning bolt scar on the childrens’ foreheads; animal wranglers would place owls on wheelchairs; crew would lift wheelchairs over cables and onto sets. Everyone gave their time to answer questions from our curious visitors about the world of POTTER.
After spending time with these families, many of them shared the isolation they faced with their critically ill child. One father told me that, “People didn’t know what to say or do, so they often didn’t do anything.” Those words stayed with me and were life changing. As special as the visits were, they were one day, and after they were over families went home to isolation and financial struggles, while dealing with fears of their child’s life-threatening illness.
Seeing and hearing the reality of these families struggles is where There With Care was born. These families were so humble, dedicated and caring yet they brought to light the glaring need that exists today. They showed me the necessity for finding people who need help and bringing them together with people who want to help.
To figure out where to begin, I reached out to four of the families I had kept in touch with who shared what would have helped their family during their journey. The things they shared are the most needed services There With Care provides to families, including groceries, cleaning supplies, family toiletries, sibling support, gas and other transportation to get to treatments, rent and utility assistance and more.
Since launching There With Care 17 years ago, we have helped more than 5,000 families in Colorado from Children’s Hospital Colorado, Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children, and 19 other hospitals and medical facilties; more than 3,000 families in the Bay Area from Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and Benioff Children’s Hospital; and, last year launched our newest location in Nashville, already helping nearly 300 families from Monroe Carol Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt and TriStar Centennial Children’s Hospital.
I truly believe There With Care was meant to be because the same day I left my job I received a call from my friend Louie Psihoyos, who was starting a documentary film in our hometown. He had never made a film before and needed help, and joining him was a way for me to start the non-profit and have stability for our family. Since the beginning, good things have consistently come to There With Care at the most needed times, and I don’t take that for granted.
For the first several years growing There With Care, I also worked with Louie and we made the documentary THE COVE, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. That started a balance between documentaries including QUINCY, KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON and There With Care, which became my norm for the past 17 years. It has been a gift between heart, passion, service and creativity.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
One of the first families we worked with had to move from a shared home with other family members, to a new apartment with just their immediate family. Due to their son’s cancer treatments as he was immunocompromised, and they needed to control their home environment for his safety. The social worker called me to see if we could help. She said the family was moving that week and had nothing beyond beds. I started boxing up things for them from our house and reached out to friends who started bringing things to our porch. We collected linens, bedding, dishes, silverware, glasses, pots and pans, literally everything a family might need in their home. I was sitting at my home desk and looked up at two pictures of flowers on our wall. I thought to myself that we didn’t need two, we could share one with this family, and placed it in one of their boxes. We made several deliveries to their home and provided other support through his months of chemotherapy and radiation.
After he finished his treatments, the family asked me if I could come to their house. They had made a lunch for us, and they shared how much the support was helpful for them. Sitting at their kitchen table, I looked up and saw the flower picture hanging over their table. I held back tears and it is something I will never forget. Seeing those flowers placed above their table was truly a message that we all have something to share with another person. It has been a guiding force for 17 years and catalyst for the mission of There With Care. We are reminded every day that showing up and putting care into what we bring to a family can be helpful and also meaningful.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Our first offices were in a donated space. We had an office with an attached large open area. Someone saw our office with the large empty area and asked if we wanted a full room of furniture. We set up a nice waiting area and it worked out great for volunteers and guests. One day I was delivering groceries to a family, and I saw that they didn’t have any furniture at all and were sitting on the floor. I went back to the office with a U-Haul and we loaded and delivered all of the furniture to the family’s apartment. On Monday I got a call on my cell phone from our team member asking, “Have we been robbed? I came in today and literally everything is gone!” That was a good lesson to share what we have, but also let our team know.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
When a child is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, often one parent has to leave their job to care for their child. This creates immediate financial distress for families, who often must make choices between food or gas to get their children to chemotherapy. By providing essential and critical support, There With Care takes those stresses off a family’s plate, so they have more time to focus on their child. We stay with the families throughout their medical crisis, bringing them ongoing relief through a continuum of care, and a sense of community. The need for social responsibility, a supportive community, caring for one another and true selflessness is more important than ever before and There With Care strives to give, care and be present every single day.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
When I first started There With Care, I wanted to also work closely with some of the families to experience, and learn firsthand how we could provide the most helpful care. I was matched with one family who had a beautiful two-year old son Thomas who had a brain tumor. Through weekly check-in calls to mom Cate and making regular deliveries to them at their temporary housing near the hospital, our connection grew. Each week we would bring food, supplies, helped with car repairs, and house cleaning because her son who was immunocompromised from his bone marrow transplant. At one point he was receiving radiation five days a week and was in a lot of pain. Cate shared how hard that was to drive him back and forth, with him crying in the back seat. We set up rides for them to and from the hospital so Cate could sit in the back and comfort him. She later shared that those rides were also special memories that they made looking for different things from the back seat on their rides.
Sadly, Cate’s beautiful Thomas passed away at four-years old. Two weeks after she lost her son, she came into our office and said, “I want to help.” When she walked in our door, it really hit me that if she wanted to do this for other families, it must have really been helpful for them. On that day, she started volunteering to help others and over time became a part of our team. Nearly 14-years later, she is still helping to bring care to families and is a daily reminder why it matters to show up for people when they are in a fragile time in their lives.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
One way that people can help address this issue is to volunteer their time, physically show up for others. If they can’t volunteer their time, provide financial support to help others. For families with a critically ill child, their wholeness is threatened.
People in a medical crisis with their child need to know they are not alone and being there for them bringing tangible support, reduces financial stresses and gives them time together. When a child has a life-threatening diagnosis, the entire family is affected. Holding a family through their medical journey, not only helps the patient, it helps the entire family have some normalcy during an incredibly fragile time.
We often tell people not to give families a job trying to figure out how you can help them. Being thoughtful and sending or bringing things that can ease some of the daily stresses, not only gives a family tangible help, it also lets them know they are not alone and people truly do care about them.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I see Leadership as the generosity and willingness to share, guide, collaborate, listen and to hopefully inspire. Inspiring leaders empower others and raise them up. To provide mentorship and also, to continue to learn themselves.
When leading through humility, kindness, and generosity, it can be joyful to see the impact that has on the meaning of the work. When people are trusted with knowledge and experience that is shared with them, it’s rewarding to see them grow while also having the space to make things their own. Sometimes it’s easier to follow the same path but when we’re open to change and give others a safe opportunity to contribute, that’s where the magic can happen.
Inspiring leaders are not threatened by the success of others but are proud of those successes. True leaders are supportive with acknowledgement, constructive feedback, clarity of purpose and direction and give genuine praise which fuels inspiration, sustainability and growth.
When there is alignment of these ideas, it creates an environment that is honest, welcoming, nurturing, productive, safe and one that is fulfilling to be a part of.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. It will be forever changing. I have always felt the need to get things fully together and have that sense of “we know it all now”. What I’ve learned is that starting and running a non-profit is forever changing based on the needs of those we serve and the impacts that daily life, economy, local and cultural events, etc. have on a non-profit.
2. You can’t fix everything. Although we try to ease burdens for the families, we can’t fix all of their stresses. There are so many worries and unknowns with their children’s diagnosis and their financial distress. What we can do is take a few of those things away for them, and ease some of their burdens.
3. You can’t make everyone happy. Trying to bring people together, there was a will to please everyone involved. It’s just not possible. Learning to accept this is important for sustainability. Of course, we try our best, but it’s not realistic or necessary to try and please everyone.
4. Start with a Database. As unglamorous as this sounds, I quickly learned the need for keeping track of our community and our program work, and how important it was do have this right from the start.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Starting a non-profit was new for me 17 years ago. It was difficult to ask friends and people in the community for help, but people are good and they do want to help others. It’s okay to ask for help, knowing that sometimes people will say no, and that’s okay too.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
People adding more intention into caring for one another. Small acts of generosity are not small at all. They can touch a person’s life in a big way. After several years of isolation through the pandemic, we need connection, compassion and empathy now more than ever.
As people start to come back in person to their jobs and communities, doing service together is a way to plant some of those seeds of care that will grow. Showing up for each other, seeing others who struggle and helping them through it, is when everyone does better.
My dream is to have There With Care at all Children’s Hospitals around the country, bringing people together and building stronger connections and communities.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My mother-in-law always told me, “No matter what you do, if you can, you want to be at a job where you want to hit every green light on your way to work.” I often think about that when I’m driving to work, especially when I hit a green light. I can’t remember a day that I didn’t want to be at There With Care and be a part of our mission. Although our work is supporting families who are facing a terrifying time in their lives, it’s important we continue to show up and support them so they are not alone.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Thinking about meeting the one person in the world I’d love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, there is no question is MacKenzie Scott. Her generosity is unlike anyone I can think of.
She clearly has a kind heart and is supporting the needs non-profits have and the difficulty we all have balancing resources and programs. The impact her giving, her philosophy and her actions have had is enormous; the influence and profound effects on the way we all see philanthropy. Simply put her gifts will allow the entities to focus and fully execute their mission.
It can be consuming living in the space every day where you worry about how you will continue to sustain your mission through grants, donations, events and sheer will. The reality is that so much of our time is allocated to financial sustainability. I can’t imagine what it would be like for our team to not have that worry about the funding and to have the ability to focus more attention on the service and care for the families with a critically ill child.
At There With Care we try and lift things off of the plate for families who are in financial distress. If I was at a breakfast with her, I would want to ask what it is like to lift things off for non-profits through philanthropy. My hope is that she can feel the tremendous impact she is making in the world on so many levels.
It’s incredibly moving to see her selfless generosity and inspiring to see the impact her support has already brought.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Paula DuPré Pesmen of ‘There With Care’ Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.