On episode 8 of The Wealth Cast, Chas speaks to Christine DiBona Lobley, who heads up Fred’s Footsteps, a non-profit honoring the life and legacy of her father, native South Philadelphian G. Fred DiBona, Jr. Fred’s Footsteps raises money to help families with seriously ill, injured or disabled children. Christine shares some of the many ways in which the organization has helped thousands of family members, and how it is adapting to numerous changes imposed by COVID-19.
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Hello and welcome to The Wealth Cast. I’m your host, Charles Boinske. Today, I’m delighted to have as my guest, Christine Lobley, Executive Director of Fred’s Footsteps, one of the leading philanthropic organizations in the Delaware Valley.
Over the last 15 years, Fred’s Footsteps has helped almost one thousand families who are dealing with a sick child, and all of the stresses and strains that come with that. They’ve distributed almost six and a half million dollars in nineteen counties in Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware, and work today with more than 250 social workers in various hospitals around the Delaware Valley.
Christine’s going to share the story of Fred’s footsteps, the mission, and I’m sure it’s going to prove to be inspirational to you and perhaps give you the encouragement that you need to support organizations like Fred’s footsteps, or perhaps even start your own. So, Christine, thank you so much for joining us on the show today. And I’m thrilled to have you here and learn more about Fred’s Footsteps.
Thanks for having me, I really appreciate it.
You’re very, very welcome. So why don’t we just start in the beginning? And if you give us a background of how Fred’s Footsteps got started, and the mission, etc., that would be helpful.
Sure. So the mission of Fred’s Footsteps is to provide financial relief to hardworking families caring for seriously ill, injured, and disabled children. We help with the costs associated with parents being out of work, or caring for their children. Our goal of the program is really, that a child’s health should be a parent’s only worry.
We were founded back in 2005, after the passing of my dad, G. Fred DiBona, Jr. He died at 53 from kidney cancer, and after he passed away, there were so many people that came to us and told us about the difference that he made in their lives, whether big or small. He always loved people and loved hearing people’s stories, connecting with them individually, and really learning about how he could be a positive part of their lives—whatever that meant. If somebody was down on their luck, he would try to figure out any way that he could be helpful for them, and any way that he could provide support and lend a hand. He loved an underdog story and loved, you know, people who were just trying to get by and something happened, and they needed to really just be able to pull themselves up and have a fresh start.
So it was really in that spirit that we founded Fred’s Footsteps. We heard so many stories that were so comforting to our family, and we just knew that for all the things that we missed about him, and for all the things we wanted back, the one thing we could keep alive was his legacy for helping families in need.
And that’s a great story. How did you decide that Fred’s Footsteps was the answer? Because there could have been other ways to do it, right? You decided that this was the best way?
Yeah. So I mean, it kind of was like a lot of things in life—it was a little bit of luck, a little bit of, you know, just trying something out. A friend of my dad’s came to us and said that one of the boards that he served on wanted to make a contribution, and they wanted my mom to direct the contribution. At that time, she just didn’t know what to—where to direct it. And he said, “Why don’t we start a foundation, you can capture the money and figure out what to do with it later.” So here we are, fifteen years later, still doing this incredible work.
But I think we started in a way that a lot of other organizations identify a need and then decide to start an organization to support that need, whereas we didn’t really know the need from the very beginning. We knew he was passionate about children and healthcare, and we knew we wanted to combine those two things, but how to do that, we really struggled with in the beginning, quite frankly. Wanting to figure out a way to do it that was unique and different from what others were doing—we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel of something somebody else was already doing.
We started doing a lot of our research around how we could help families caring for seriously ill, injured, and disabled children, and what we really found at that time was, we were looking for this one thing—this one thing that, that every family needed that nobody was providing. And through that discovery phase, we really learned there’s not one thing. So much of it depends on a family’s circumstance and their situation, and we decided to structure Fred’s Footsteps in a way that we recognize that no two families are alike, and no two struggles that these families are going through are the same.
So instead of telling families, “This is what we’ll do,” we allow families to come to us with their most pressing needs, and we work with them to figure out how we can help them solve them.
Yeah. So it’s very personal. It has to be as a result of the mission, it has to be very, very customized to the needs of the individual family.
Exactly, exactly. So I mean, we have a great relationship with the hospital social workers. The way the program works is that families apply through their hospital social workers. We have a social worker on staff, who’s our program manager, and she works directly with them to identify the needs and talk through exactly what’s going to make the biggest impact in their lives, and, you know, for every family it’s really different. We do provide—our biggest funding need is really rent and mortgage, so what we find is that even if a family has insurance and their medical bills aren’t an issue, that one or both parents just needs to not be working in order to care for their child, whether that’s temporary or long term.
The studies have always shown that children who have an active advocate, parent-guardian, at the hospital with them, do better and their outcomes are better. Not to mention the fact that children just need a parent with them. So the income gap is really the biggest thing that we see, for families caring for critically ill children.
And what’s the range of beyond the—obviously the financial gap there, the mortgage and the rent—what’s the range of services or equipment that you’ve that you’ve helped families with? Can you give examples of those?
Yeah, absolutely. So I mean, there’s the rent and mortgage, utilities; phone payments, as well—that’s a big thing—families are so terrified that their phones are going to get cut off and that they’ll not have access to their children’s doctors and therapists. Transportation is a huge issue, just a huge problem, to get to the hospital. And quite honestly, it makes it difficult for compliance with medical protocol. When you have a child that’s on dialysis, or needs to be at the hospital, and the parents are struggling to get them there, it’s really hard for those families to have to make those decisions around skipping appointments potentially. So that’s a big issue for us as well.
And then on the other side, for families who are caring for children with more chronic diseases, oftentimes, what they need is more of a one-time extraordinary expense. So a van, a ramp, a home modification—they’ve been doing fine, and they’ve been really working hard to be able to provide what their family needs, but they can’t afford these types of modifications or these pieces of equipment—that could really make a huge difference in the quality of the lives of the children and the parents. So we help with those as well.
The additional stress that the families must feel trying to deal with a sick child, and then having to deal with all these other pieces—I can’t imagine it. It must be just an incredibly difficult period for these families, and it must give you as a result, a lot of personal satisfaction, organizational satisfaction to help them.
Yeah, it absolutely does. I remember a few—quite a while ago, probably about ten years back—we helped a family who had a daughter who had an illness and she was basically the only one in the world, and they said that some somewhere in her gene pool there was a gene missing that was causing some issues for her, and it was like a severe case of autism, but not exactly. So not a lot was working for them, and they were struggling to find answers and to care for this little girl, and one of the things that they needed was, they wanted to put a fence in the backyard because she was a runner and she had no she had no concept of danger. And they said that they needed to put this fence in so that they could be outside as a family and that she could be safe.
And they put the fence in, and maybe a year or two later, they called us and just told us all about the difference that it made in her life, and their lives, and the siblings lives—that the stress in the family dynamic went down so much, and that her happiness and her ability to just be a child went up so much. And those are the types of stories that you just can’t, you know, can’t put into words what it feels like to be a part of that difference in a family’s life.
Yeah, that’s amazing. In the fifteen year history or so, at this point, how many families have you helped? And can you tell us a little bit about the footprint that you’re helping in geographically and the numbers of families that you’ve helped, etc.?
Sure. So in the past fifteen years, we’ve helped about 975 families. We’ve invested over—close to $6 million into the community. So it’s been really incredible to be able to invest in families. You know, we call it—we provide them funding and their grants—but it’s really an investment in our community’s future and keeping these families on their feet.
We serve 18 counties around Philadelphia, New Jersey, South Jersey and northern Delaware. Most of the families come to us from either CHOP or Nemours. We find that, you know, most families that if their child is that sick, they’re really visiting those hospitals. So that’s an added level of stress for families who live in one of the counties that’s an hour or two from the hospital. It’s just a lot of cost and stress for that family.
How about sharing the organizations that you’ve partnered with? I know for example, the Eagles, Eagles Care has been a big partner. Can you talk about that and how that’s worked and help the organization?
Yeah, absolutely. So last year, we were absolutely thrilled to be accepted as an Eagles Care partner. So the Eagles their community relations program is really around, and we say it’s really similar to what Fred’s Footsteps does—they help less organizations, but with more meaningful impact. So they select two or three partners each year to really go deep with, and help to raise visibility and provide resources to the organizations.
So it was an incredible partnership. We were so blessed to be included this past season. They gave us tickets to share with our families, which was just incredible because so many of these families would never have an opportunity to go to an Eagles game otherwise. They hosted a holiday party for us at The Linc (Lincoln Financial Field), where families were able to interact with players and see the trophy and see the locker room, and it was just an incredible experience for these families. We also run our own holiday program to help the families, so it was during that party that we revealed the gift cards that we were giving to them to help them shop for holiday gifts for their family.
So it’s a really special night and it’s been an incredible partnership, because it’s just helped us to kind of continue to grow our brand and to grow the mission, and to partner with like-minded organizations who really want to invest in the health and wellness of the community.
Yeah, that’s a really neat story. I can’t imagine, you know—your dad, I understand was a huge Eagles fan, and that would have been very meaningful to him, I’m sure, to have that connection.
Absolutely. He was a die hard Eagles fan. The day of the Super Bowl, I actually went to the cemetery and put one of the underdog masks at the grave.
He just loved the Eagles and they were everything, you know, he loved about this city—you know, the underdog status, the grit, the toughness. And that’s, you know, really what we see in our families too, is just this incredible grit and we’ll oftentimes be looking at an application for a family and say “Gosh, how have they even been making it this far? How have they stayed on their feet until now?” They get to us often when they’re they’re at a breaking point and we always say they’re incredibly resourceful though—they don’t need—this is not a handout, it’s a hand up, because they can really make a lot work with a little. But sometimes in their darkest hours they just need a little bit extra push.
Yes, I understand. I think, you know, as a parent, you can’t imagine having a child that was in that condition and where you’re having difficulty meeting their needs, or whatever the case may be, or just your circumstances didn’t allow you to do it. The stress from that must be incredible, and the relief that comes from getting some help must be really, really heartwarming for those families.
Yeah, it absolutely is. You know, we always say no parent should have to make the decision between going to work or being at their child’s bedside. It’s just—it’s not a decision that a parent should have to make, and to be able to take that decision off of their plate is something really special, and we’re really blessed to be able to do it.
Yeah, that’s fantastic. How has, you know, in the current environment, where we’re all dealing with COVID-19, and I know, that has interfered with all sorts of organizations— can imagine it’s not only interfered with the operation of Fred’s Footsteps on a day-to-day basis to some degree, but also made it more difficult for these families. Can you talk about that a little bit and how you’ve responded to it, and what the future might hold?
One of the principles that—our guiding principles of the organization is really, as I talked about earlier, agility and being able to be agile, to meet family’s needs in new and different and innovative ways. And I think that we’ve done a really good job of kind of transitioning to this new work-from-home environment, and keep our operations running, and then look at what is affecting families during just a time, where there’s just profound need, how do we become part of a solution for that for families.
So we were very, very quick. Our grant advisory committee was able to go to the board and start a COVID-19 relief fund for families, and what that did was at the time—and it’s still up and running—is that we provide gift cards, emergency gift cards, for food, for groceries, to families who are caring for seriously ill, injured, and disabled children. And it’s kind of different from our core program in that it’s more emergency assistance.
I know a lot of social workers were reaching out to us and saying “We have so much need, but they don’t necessarily fit the criteria of the core program, which provides a much more substantial amount of assistance, but they need help right now.” And we worked with them to say, “Look, the families, they’re going to need to pay their rent eventually, and utilities, but there’s a moratorium, right now on all of that, so what’s really right in front of them?” and that was, you know, being able to provide food for their families.
So that fund was started up at the end of March—so it was really, really quick—and we were able to start serving families right away. And so far, we’ve served over 200 families and provided about $40,000 in assistance through that fund. And I think, you know, it just gives families a little bit of time to adjust to a new normal as they were kind of figuring out how they could stay financially sound as possible when many of them have lost their jobs. I mean, so many of these families we serve are in the service industry, and really, really impacted through layoffs.
And then a lot of families had to make decisions to not go back to work for the safety of their child.
They really can’t afford to put their children at risk for the virus, and they had to make that difficult decision to not go back to work, which was another really hard thing for many families. So we’re really proud of that fund, and that we were able to get it up and running quickly. And we’re continuing to look at how we can evolve that and how we can continue to meet needs for families that might not fit into the criteria of the core program where there’s an exacerbation of the illness or there’s a one-time extraordinary expense, but that their financial crisis is really due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yeah, talk about a vulnerable population—that’s got to be among the most vulnerable.
How about in the new normal that we’re going through right now with COVID-19, I know much of your fundraising seems to be from the events that you hold, and that’s got to create some change in strategy a little bit there. Can you talk about, you know, how you’re thinking about that, and what coming up?
Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, that’s the number one thing we’ve been thinking about as an organization, and, I think all nonprofits, events are a big business.
Sure they are.
We were really lucky because we have two big events during the year—there’s a spring gala called Party in the Yard, and we have a fall golf outing. And we were able to—our spring gala was March 7, and we were able to still hold that right before kind of everything fell apart and many other organizations had to cancel very large events, which is just heartbreaking for the populations they serve. We were very fortunate that we could hold that and it was incredibly successful—we did better than the previous year. So we felt really lucky that we had that.
We then kind of pivoted to looking at how do we do our—we do a ladies event typically in May—how do we change that to a virtual event? And how do we do something that supports the community as well. So with that event, we did a lot of virtual events—we did a virtual trivia night, a cooking class, a cocktail class, and then also partnered with other small businesses, to promote their businesses, and they were giving a portion of sales back to us. It was really successful. And I think, you know, we just had to reimagine what it meant in a stay-at-home world, to come together as a community and participate in an event.
Yeah, you know, being adaptable is critical at any time, but it’s super critical at this moment, right?
So what about the the golf event coming up? I think it’s in September. Is that right?
Yeah, so the golf event is September 21. We are—right now, we’re still “go ahead” with the event. Luckily, golf is kind of one of the few things that you can do social distanced. So we’re hopeful that we can continue with the event. You know, we have to change the structure of it a little bit, and we’re not going to be able to host a large dinner like we have. There won’t be a shotgun start—we’ll do tee times instead.
But you know, I think one of the things is just, in terms of donor relations, just being really transparent about the situation. And we just, you know, we knew that it was a big ask for people, and many companies that are struggling right now, and we also know that we probably won’t make as much in previous years, and that’s okay. But, you know, we were just really transparent about, “We know this event is going to be different than you’ve seen it in the past, and we hope that what you’ve seen us do at this event, and what you’ve seen us do with the families that we serve, that we’ll bring that back next year, and for this year, that you’ll continue to support the organization” And we’ve had a really positive response so far. So we’ve been really grateful to our loyal sponsors that have signed on to support that event.
Well, that’s fantastic. I think transparency and authenticity are two core ingredients to any successful organization, and I’m glad you share that perspective.
And I think what you were saying about authenticity, too, I think that, you know, we always say we’re a family organization that’s helping families, really one of our core values is that we want our donors to feel like part of a family, the Fred’s Footsteps family. And I think that the culture we’ve created over the years—an authentic gratitude for our donors, our partners—it’s been something that now, during the pandemic, helps us to keep those donors engaged and wanting to help even more. You have to show people what their money is going towards, and show them how it’s making a difference, and no matter the dollar amount of what they contribute, to allow them to know that they’re making a difference in the lives of a family. And I think that that culture that we’ve created over the past fifteen years is really what’s going to help us get through this next 12 to 18 months as we, you know, prepare to know that things are going to be different, but that we have a really great loyal donor base.
When you look into the future, so you’ve had fifteen really successful years, and you look you know, I’m sure as an organization, you’re looking strategic planning-wise down the road. And when you look, look at the next five, ten, fifteen years, what do you think needs to happen for you and the rest of your family to feel like you’ve really lived up to the legacy of your father and what is it that you really want to achieve here, beyond what you’ve already done?
Yeah, that I mean, that’s a hard question. You know, I think that I saw my father as somebody who—doing good was never enough. You couldn’t do something for somebody and then feel good about it and back off—that there was always more that needed to be done and there was always somebody else that needed to be helped, and that as somebody who was in a position to be able to help, it was a responsibility to do that.
I think for us, you know, real success as an organization looks like continuing to expand and grow the number of families that we serve in this community. I think it’s hard for nonprofits, because there’s a lot of pressure to change and to expand and grow mission. And I think that we’ve really been deliberate about what we—we believe that what we’re doing, and our data shows that it’s working for these families. And there’s always unfortunately going to be a pipeline of families who need this help, and we want to be able to continue to meet that need, year after year after year.
I think that, you know, it’s not a—it’s not a fancy answer—we don’t have these big plans to expand and take over the world, but I think it makes more of a difference just to stick to what we’re doing and continuing to do it for families coming up the pipeline, and, and that we want families—any family who needs our support to be able to reach us and get our support.
Well, it’s a great goal, and perpetuating what you’ve created, and making sure it lasts into the future is, you know, an incredible goal and achievement all by itself. You know, I’m really impressed with what you’ve been able to accomplish over the last fifteen years, and I’m looking forward to learning about what you’ll accomplish over the next fifteen. And I think the story is really inspirational. It’s an incredible thing to be able to start something from scratch, sort of entrepreneurially, right? And help people the way you’ve helped them. And I’m super impressed with what you’ve been able to achieve.
Thank you, I really appreciate that. And, you know, it’s certainly been a zigzag of a road to get to where we are today, and I think we had so much passion about what we were doing, that in the beginning, we just knew to ask for help—gather as much information as possible, and kind of know our limitations and surround ourselves by people who could help us to learn this business and to learn how to be effective.
I feel really good about what we’ve done in the past fifteen years and what we’ve been able to build, and the way that we’ve done it too—how we’ve made people feel along the way, both on the donor side and on the partner side.
Well, I’m sure there are 900-plus families in the greater Delaware Valley that are so grateful to you that you did it.
With that I just want to say thank you for spending some time with me today and sharing this Fred’s footstep story.
And I hope to be able to have another chat with you in the not too distant future and learn more about what you’ve been able to achieve. But I wish you the best of luck and continued success, and thanks again for joining me.
Great, thank you so much for your support. We appreciate it.
Thank you so much for joining me and Christine Lobley today to learn about Fred’s Footsteps. If you’d like to learn more about Fred’s Footsteps and visit their website, etc., the links are provided in today’s show notes. I hope this provided you with some inspiration, perhaps to participate in some local philanthropic events or charities in your area, or perhaps even start one of your own. Until next time, thank you for joining us.
Christine DiBona Lobley is the Executive Director of Fred’s Footsteps, a non-profit that was created in honour of her father, G. Fred DiBona, Jr. A graduate of Lehigh University, previously Christine worked at SEI Investments before losing her father sent her down an entirely different path. She is married and the mother of two children, and when she isn’t busy with Fred’s Footsteps, she pursues her passion for cooking.
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