We hope you’ve been enjoying the interviews we’ve been featuring for Marc Fisher‘s #MakeYourMarc campaign. Our final interview is with Sam Watson, a two-time young adult cancer survivor who co-founded The Samfund in 2003 when she realized there was such a huge void for services and financial support for young cancer survivors. Through their grants, young people are able to do everything from pay their rent, buy food, maintain their insurance and more. Since 2005, this has included raising $1.75 million in grants and starting original programming to help young people make the best financial decisions before and after their treatments. Read on for more about Sam and her incredible mission. And be sure to check out the #MakeYourMarc campaign where you can nominate your own real-life role model to be considered for a grant, have an outlet to share their story and receive free shoes.
It is a brave mission and wonderful company that you’ve started! Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired the mission for The Samfund?
I knew firsthand how critical financial support was for young adult cancer survivors, and created The Samfund as my way of paying it forward, since there were so many people – friends, family members, total strangers, and everyone in between – who supported my family and me during my years of treatment. Because of them, and because I had the best caregivers and advocates in my parents, I wasn’t left with a stack of bills when I was finished with treatment. But I started to meet other young adults who were struggling in profound ways, and I got a glimpse of what my experience could have been.
We can’t imagine what it’s like to confront two cancer diagnoses at such a young age. What were some of the emotional challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
One of the hardest things about going through cancer at 21 was having to watch my friends graduate, start their first jobs, move into their first apartments, and begin living their lives as independent young adults while everything for me stood still. I had been on the cusp of everything college seniors dream about, then everything got put on hold while I went through treatment. The first time, I didn’t know enough about cancer or Ewing Sarcoma to be as scared as I should have been, though I was sicker than I ever could have imagined.
When I was diagnosed the second time at age 23, and told I needed a bone marrow transplant, my response and experience looked very different. I was terrified. I even asked my mom’s best friend to promise to take care of her if I didn’t survive. Again, I watched my friends travel their own paths as I had to stand in one place, but that was the least of it. My saving grace during that time was that I had so many blood and platelet transfusions that I was constantly given Benadryl and other medications, so I essentially slept for most of my three months in the hospital. I don’t know how those around me got through that time because all they could do was watch.
But, truly, they are the reason I am still here. Friends and family members crowded my room, and the family waiting room, every single day. They sat in my room while I slept, brought in food for my parents and each other, slept on chairs, and didn’t leave us alone for a second (which I mean in the best possible way). Those who weren’t able to visit in person sent cards (this was pre-social media), called constantly, and always let us know they were thinking of us.
So I’m not sure that I really did anything consciously to “overcome” the emotional challenges of cancer, but I do know that I had a big network of people around me who picked me up when I couldn’t do it myself (or so that I didn’t have to). Whenever I needed to cry, there were multiple shoulders offered. When I felt well enough to go home for the first time, there was food in our fridge and a pot on the stove. And when I needed help moving forward, friends stepped in to help me get my first job and my first apartment. I was so incredibly lucky – and remain so very grateful – to have this amazing community surrounding me.
One of the hardest things about going through cancer at 21 was having to watch my friends graduate, start their first jobs, move into their first apartments, and begin living their lives as independent young adults while everything for me stood still.
What are some of the things that helped you during your rehabilitation and reintegration into daily life?
My parents. Our friends. Music. And, financial support. Even after my transplant was behind me and I was finally released from the hospital, I still had to stay in NYC for almost a year to get monitored regularly by my doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. I don’t actually remember much about how we passed each day, but I do remember that my friends and family stuck close. Through a bone marrow transplant organization at that time, people were able to contribute money to help us with our living expenses, medical bills, and other things, and I spent a lot of time writing thank you notes. In many ways, that was one of the inspirations for The Samfund.
Almost a year after my transplant, I no longer needed to see my doctors as frequently and they gave me the all-clear to return to Boston. That was actually one of the most challenging moments though because I had already graduated from college but hadn’t yet started working, so I was sort of in this young-adult-no-man’s-land. But again, I had the best people around me. One friend was looking for a roommate and another worked for an organization that wanted to hire someone who spoke Spanish (which I do). Many other college friends had stayed in Boston after graduating, so I had a built-in network already in place. On every level – personally, professionally, physically, emotionally – starting out my post-cancer young adult life, while it certainly brought many challenges, could have been so much harder than it was.
You started The Samfund at such a young age! What are some of the lessons you’ve learned about running a non-profit since then?
When I created The Samfund, I had little in the way of professional experience and really no idea what I was doing in terms of running an organization. But I had my story, I had passion for this idea, and I had smart, willing professionals and volunteers to help. As it became clear that The Samfund could really grow into a thriving nonprofit, I went back to school to get the skills I needed and graduated in 2006 with an MBA in Nonprofit Management. I get emails and calls all the time from people wanting to start nonprofits, and the advice I always give is to:
Especially now, as a parent to young kids, this last point is really important and one that I didn’t pay enough attention to until recently. In the nonprofit sector, especially, we are all trying to do a lot with too little, and know that our work means the difference between someone getting the help they need, or not. That’s a lot of pressure to carry around. But without fuel in the proverbial tank, we will all burn out at some point. Self-care is so important. In the age of digital everything, we are so accustomed to immediate responses and quick information, but when it comes down to it, the world won’t actually end if we don’t send emails at midnight or 5am. It’s okay to disconnect while on vacation, or take a personal day every now and then. In the end, taking a mental break will make us better at what we do both professionally and personally.
How does The Samfund help young adults integrate back into daily life after dealing with illness and treatment?
The most direct way that The Samfund helps is by paying bills so that young adults have one less thing to worry about. Often, our grants make it possible for young adults to keep their homes, feed their kids, see their doctors, or maintain health insurance. Many of them are struggling profoundly because cancer impacted their lives at a time when they had little financial stability to begin with; in a paper we published in Cancer Medicine, we found that our grant recipients showed an average net worth of $100,000 less than their peers. That’s a huge gap to fill at any age, especially in your 20s or 30s when you’re just starting out.
But as helpful and as necessary as the money itself is, we’ve also been told many times over the years that it’s the validation and the community that matter even more. No one really likes to talk about money, and no one really likes to talk about illness. So when you put those two things together, it becomes even harder to ask for help (especially after treatment ends and you are no longer bald or hooked up to an IV pole). What we’re able to provide is a supportive community of peers who understand and are able to share experiences and resources with one another. It’s an amazing thing to watch.
As a working mother, what do you think is the biggest challenge juggling your workflow and raising a family?
For me, the biggest challenge is figuring out where to draw the line between work and home, and giving myself permission to do so. There is guilt in every scenario. I travel a lot for work, and I’ve missed Halloween parties and soccer games and other events which makes me feel like a terrible parent. On the flip side, I’ve come in late to work or left early many times because of parent-teacher conferences or school recitals, and then feel the need to get my work done at night or on the weekend (which further imposes on my family time). It’s hard to prioritize one without feeling like I’m sacrificing the other.
What are some of your long- term goals for The Samfund?
In the best case scenario, The Samfund would no longer be needed because young adults wouldn’t be going broke because of cancer. This year, we started working with Critical Mass on some initiatives that could alleviate some of the financial burden faced by young adults on a larger scale, which is exciting. Until no one needs us, though, we’re committed to expanding our grants program so that eventually we don’t have to turn anyone away due to limited funds.
My other long-term goal is to use the insight and data that we’ve gained over the past 14 years to raise awareness of financial toxicity and young adult cancer. In addition to money and illness both being taboo subjects, most people don’t realize that the aftermath of cancer can be equally as challenging as treatment in different ways. We see it as our job to start and contribute to conversations not only to make it easier for people to ask for help, but also to find pathways to new solutions.
What advice can you give someone who is passionate about a cause but doesn’t know where to start?
There are so many charities that need volunteer help, and so many good causes out there, that it can be really hard to know where to start. Before you make the first phone call or send the first email, take some time to figure out what it is you want to accomplish. What issue or population are you most passionate about, and/or what problem are you hoping to help solve? What skills do you have to offer the charity? Do you want to be part of a big organization or a small one? Are you looking for an in-person or virtual volunteering opportunity?
From the nonprofit side, “what can I do to help?” is sometimes one of the hardest questions to answer, especially if there isn’t a regularly scheduled program that needs staffing, for example, or an upcoming event that needs volunteers. That doesn’t mean that nonprofits don’t need help — quite the contrary! But the phone calls and emails we love best usually start with, “I’m a graphic designer and I’d love to offer my skills to help with your next report/event/brochure” or “I work in digital marketing and can help you set up Google Analytics and Adwords” (both real-life conversations that we very much appreciated!). Be specific about what you can do and why you want to help. Be realistic about how much time you can give and the level of commitment you can make, and follow through on both.
In the end, taking a mental break will make us better at what we do both professionally and personally.
When you aren’t busy, what are some things that you love to do for fun?
I love to cook. Luckily, I have two kids who are great eaters which makes it even more fun. Music is still a huge part of my life, though I rarely play our piano anymore (we do listen to music on the radio and have dance parties in our kitchen). And in the past couple of years I’ve started going to Barre3 classes, which has been great not only for my physical health and strength but also for my mental health. I get an hour of “me” time, where I can’t think about anything else except how much my muscles hurt, and it has been the only exercise I’ve found that has made me stronger without requiring a lot of jumping or high-impact activity (both limitations of mine, given the surgeries on my leg). I love it.
What is the most gratifying part of what you do?
Seeing the myriad ways in which our grant recipients and their families move forward. We have a wall of birth announcements from those whose grants have helped them start families, which is the happiest place in our office. I also have a letter from a long-ago grant recipient who wrote about being able to finally save up to buy her first home after our grant helped her get out of debt and start to rebuild credit. Young adults who have gone on to accomplish great things – starting their own businesses, returning to or finishing school, becoming medical professionals and advocates, and in so many other ways going on to live happy, healthy lives – after profound struggle are the reason we do what we do. They are testament to the fact that sometimes all it takes is a little bit of help at the right time.
What keeps you going and keeps you encouraged?
Everything I just mentioned. On days when we are frustrated because we have to tell someone we can’t help them directly, or when we feel like we’re on a fundraising hamster wheel (which never seems to go fast enough), we look at the letters and know that what we are able to do is making an impact. At the same time, knowing we still can’t help everyone who comes to us is motivation to keep trying to raise more.
What do you hope to pass along to your children about following their aspirations?
I hope they grow up knowing that they can try anything. They may not succeed at everything they do, but they should never be afraid to give something a shot. Most important is that they work hard, have good intentions, and do something that makes them happy.
If you could thank one person who has played a pivotal role in your journey who would it be and why?
This may be the hardest question on here because (and I know how fortunate I am to say this) there are just so many people for whom I am incredibly grateful. But if I had to just name one, it’s Eli, my bone marrow donor. Without him, I quite simply would not be here.
Interested in donating? Visit The Samfund to learn more.
Start small but think big.
It’s more important to play nice than to be the biggest or loudest.