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North Salem Group Brightens Holidays For Families Of Critically Ill Kids

North Salem-based Friends of Karen is looking for donations of toys and other items that will brighten the holidays for critically ill children and their families.
North Salem-based Friends of Karen is looking for donations of toys and other items that will brighten the holidays for critically ill children and their families. Photo Credit: Contributed

NORTH SALEM, N.Y. -- Finding time for shopping and cooking is tough, even in the best of times. But for families caring for a sick child, even those simple everyday chores can be overwhelming -- especially during the stressful holiday season, says a North Salem group.

Friends of Karen strives each year to lift some of that burden from the shoulders of the parents, caregivers and siblings of children with life-threatening illnesses.

“When we think about the impact of illness, especially during the holiday season, we think about the whole family,” Judith Factor, Friends of Karen's executive director.

Founded in the late-1970s as a community fundraiser for the family of Karen MacInnes, a North Salem girl with a rare genetic disease whodied at 17 in 1978, the organization has grown to a three-office operation that serves hundreds of families each year in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

In 2015, Friends of Karen's Holiday Adopt-a-Family program was able to provide presents for about 900 children. It expects to do the same this year, Factor said.

Every year, starting in the late summer, it asks its social workers to get “wish lists” from the approximately 650 families it serves.

The lists cover not only gifts for the ailing child, but for his or her siblings as well.

According to its volunteer coordinator, Denise Tredwell, each child is matched up with a “kind-hearted elf” who purchases one or more items on the list.

“Every child looks forward to the holidays, but when parents are caring for a child with a life-threatening illness, there’s no time for shopping or even thinking about gifts,” she said.

“We want them to have joyful memories, even in the midst of illness,” Tredwell added.

A lot of its families are struggling with finances, and sometimes ask for more practical presents such as warm coats and shoes. “We always throw in a couple of toys and some candy,” Factor added.

The presents are sent along with festive paper, bows and clear adhesive tape, so family members can have the joy of wrapping them up themselves.

Having some say over even such a small thing as wrapping is important, when everything else seems out of control, Factor said.

This year, the group is using donations to purchase gift cards -- Visa, Mastercard, Stop & Shop, for instance -- that can be used to buy food, or anything else the families might need for a holiday meal.

Friends of Karen serves an ethnically diverse population and it wants them to “have some control over what they eat,” Factor said.

Preparing for the program is a seven-day-a-week deal and, she said, the group is “extremely grateful” for all the help it receives from individuals and even companies who hold toy drives during the year.

Lots of folks do their shopping online nowadays and are donating “boxes of boxes” to the group, another thing, Factor said, for which they are grateful.

“Honestly,” she added, “there’s nothing we can’t use.”

Friends of Karen also supplies birthday presents for the kids the rest of the year.

One mother’s note to the group really said it all:

“Thank you never feels like enough! With everything going on, buying gifts was really the last thing on my mind so when your box came in the mail it meant so much. To see the looks on my kids’ faces as they opened their gifts was priceless …”

To help out, contact Tredwell by calling (914)-617-4052 or by emailing her at

To learn more about Friends of Karen, or to participate in the Holiday Adopt-A-Family program, click here.

For more information about the MacInnes family, click here.

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