Joey Powell (right) accepts a painting in thanks from a child being treated at the North Carolina Children's Hospital who received "Christmas in July" gifts from the Me Fine Foundation. He was spending time in the same hospital where his newborn son was receiving long-term care. He, wife Becca and son Huck are seen below.
Note: The 7th Annual Me Fine Gala will be held from 7:30-11:30 p.m. Oct. 18 at Marbles Kids Museum, 201 E. Hargett St., Raleigh. To donate items for the silent auction, visit http://www.mefinegala.com/.
Last February, the right combination of leadership and empathy earned Joey Powell the job of executive director of the Me Fine Foundation. The charity's mission is to help parents and caregivers of children being treated for life-threatening conditions at Duke Children's Hospital in Durham and UNC's North Carolina Children's Hospital in Chapel Hill.
"When I first learned about this job, it really felt like a calling," Powell says. "I felt a passion for this work that is hard to explain."
Powell gained unexpected clarity on the feeling soon after meeting with hospital executives to identify more ways that Me Fine can serve families. He was especially impressed by the commitment of Dr. Wayne Price, chief of UNC's Division of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine.
"When he told me about the abilities of the unit, he blew me away," Powell says. "Three weeks later, I was in the very same room talking to him as a parent."
Powell and his pregnant wife, Becca, a mental health therapist, had been referred to Price when a routine ultrasound identified a concern. Their developing child had been diagnosed with spina bifida, a congenital disorder in which the spinal column does not close all of the way.
Price recommended intrauterine surgery to address the malformation. While risky, it allowed Houston Joseph (Huck) Powell, born on June 6, more time in the womb - nearly 30 weeks, but still 10 weeks short of full gestation.
"Our son has been a miracle," Powell says. "He has far surpassed expectations, physically and developmentally. They told us at his first clinic that he'll probably walk with minimal or no assistance."
The Powells were fortunate to have been pre-approved by their insurance company for the costly surgery, weeks of intensive care and ongoing therapy. As evidence by the heated national debate over health insurance, not all families are as lucky.
"The stress and strain and financial burden - the changes in life people go through to get their children healthcare - is unfathomable," Powell says. "We saw first-hand what a lot of families are dealing with. These are the kinds of things that Me Fine helps. It made my work much more impactful."
Me Fine Foundation was founded in 2004 by Lorie K. Lee in memory of her son, Folden Lee IV, who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 2. No matter how tough his treatments were, the child always responded, "Me fine!" The organization works to pool resources and provide support to families facing life-changing challenges. It expects to reach a milestone of serving 1,000 families next month.
"We focus on keeping kids healthy and helping families keep their lives as normal as possible - and their heads above water," Powell says. He adds that Me Fine has been helping a Triangle family "on and off for years" as its two young sons battle different types of cancer. "One child is in remission, but the other is going to start chemotherapy again soon," he explains. "We help with their mortgage and electric bill, so it's one less thing to worry about."
While Me Fine typically focuses on caregivers, it recently embraced a special project for a longtime patient.
"We have facilities with world-class care in our back yard, so they draw some really rare cases," Powell says. "We're literally dealing with a once-in-a-lifetime case with a child cancer. He's of driving age now and looking for work. We helped to pay for the title so he could get his car."
Me Fine has corporate sponsors and recurring donors, but the needs of eligible families push its budget to the limit. The foundation will hold its annual fundraising gala on Oct. 18, and Powell aims to further grow the organization through the power of its stories.
"It helps our donors have a sense of personal investment when they hear about the critically ill children and families we serve," he says. "The fact is, these things can happen to any of us. Some of the situations we deal with have really good outcomes; some don't. The point is to help."
Me Fine Foundation hopes to increase services this year to include counseling for extended family members. It also wants to offer support to families whose children are being treated at WakeMed Children's Hospital in Raleigh. Powell says $50,000 will be needed to cover about 18 months of service there.
"We've done a needs assessment, and we're ready to launch as soon as we have the funds," Powell says. "That children's hospital has done some magnificent things. It would be a great place for us to be."
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