Special Delivery from Jen Rubino!
A little more than a year ago, 16-year-old Jen Rubino thought about how she could change the experience of a child in the hospital. Having spent a lot of time in hospitals herself, Rubino drew from her own life to see how she could improve those of others. Today, Rubino looks to bring joy to hospitalized children through card creation and delivery. Teen Voices recently spoke with Rubino about her organization, her illness, and how they have both affected her outlook on life.
Teen Voices (TV): When you were 11 years old, you were diagnosed with a chronic illness that has since required 15 surgeries and many hospital visits. What was most frustrating about this time for you?
Jen Rubino (JR): I would say the most frustrating thing was not getting to be a normal kid. Most kids got to go to school, go to dances, and play sports. And I wasn’t getting to do any of that because I was in the hospital, always seeing doctors and always having treatments. It really stole my childhood from me, which was hard to deal with.
TV: Can you tell us a little bit about your illness?
JR: I started having chronic pain throughout my body and I didn’t really know what to think of it at first. The doctors eventually found out that I was suffering from a rare, poorly understood connective tissue disorder; it doesn’t even have a specific title. Basically, it weakens my body and forces me to have frequent surgeries and treatments.
TV: Could you tell our readers a little bit about your organization, Cards for Hospitalized Kids (CFHK)?
JR: It’s a national, charitable organization and our mission is to give hope, joy, and magic to hospitalized kids through cards. We have volunteers around the country who make cards and send them to us in Illinois. We distribute them to more than 70 different hospitals. Our goal for this year is to give cards to 20,000 hospitalized kids. The company started in March 2011, and we’ve given out 6,000 cards so far.
TV: Despite your health obstacles, you looked for a way to give back to others in your position. What inspired you to start your organization? Is there a specific card you remember receiving while you were in the hospital that impacted your idea?
JR: Last February I was in the hospital when I was recovering from my 13th surgery. I was away from my friends and everything was really hard to deal with. I received a card from a volunteer while I was sleeping that helped me so much. A card seems so simple to people who aren’t going through something like I was, but it meant so much to me because of [what I was going through with my illness]. It’s like that for other hospitalized kids too—because of what they’re going through, it means the world to them. From that, I came up with the idea of Cards for Hospitalized Kids.
TV: Who is involved with the creation of the cards?
JR: We host monthly card-making events here in Illinois, but people all around the country make their own cards and send them to us. It’s people from all walks of life—kids, celebrities, adults, athletes, teens—everyone makes them, which is really great.
JR: Anyone between the ages of three and eighteen, who may be at any hospital in the country; we don’t have one specific hospital that we give to. We give to a variety of hospitals, for example, Saint Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee, Children’s Memorial Hospital here in Chicago, Miami Children’s Hospital, and many others. Most often, we send to kids who have some kind of serious medical condition—the kids who are battling a really serious condition and are in the hospital for the long run.
TV: You’ve had your illness throughout your work with CFHK. How has your work helped you?
JR: When I was diagnosed, I told myself that I didn’t want all the loss that I was experiencing to be for nothing. Because when I was first diagnosed, my illness took so much away from me: school, sports, leading a normal life. CFHK has given me the chance to use all of that loss in a positive way. When I see a child smiling, despite everything they’re going through, because they’ve received a card from us, it helps me deal with my own struggles. I honestly don’t know if I could have gotten though my last year, given my medical condition, without CFHK because helping the kids has helped me so much.
TV: Do you feel like your illness has taught you anything?
JR: Definitely. My illness showed me what it was like to struggle and it exposed me to a world that I never would have seen had I not been diagnosed. Though it was really hard to deal with, my illness taught me a lot of life lessons that I don’t think I would have otherwise learned, like that anything is possible if you don’t give up. I know a lot of people say that, but I really realized it after my diagnosis.
TV: Do you have any advice for other teens facing chronic or debilitating illness?
JR: My best advice would be to know that your illness is a part of you; it’s not all of you. Try to live as normal a life as you can; have dreams that you want to chase and don’t let anything get in the way of them. When I was first diagnosed, people told me I wouldn’t be able to get good grades and that I wouldn’t be able to do as much with my life. I didn’t listen, and that’s why I’m where I am today. If other kids facing a serious illness can do [the best they can in trying to live a normal life], they could be in the same position too.
TV: What’s been your most memorable experience concerning CFHK?
JR: A couple of weeks ago I received an email from a mom whose daughter had been unresponsive in the intensive care unit. We had sent her a card and an autograph from Lauren Conrad, who is one of our celebrity volunteers. While the mom was opening the card in front of her daughter, her daughter smiled. This had not happened in weeks! It’s just so amazing to me and showed me the difference that CFHK is having.
TV: If you had to choose one celebrity that you hope to get involved, who would it be?
JR: I would say Selena Gomez. Because I feel like her message, not just through her music but who she is as a person, is really inspiring and I feel like it could definitely help these kids. Celebrities have been so nice about getting involved; we’ve had people like MTV reality star and author Lauren Conrad, singer Cody Stinson, Olympic gold medalist Nastia Liukin, 2011 world champion gymnast Aly Raisman, 2007 world champion gymnast Shelia Warley, and IndyCar racer Graham Rahal…It’s so great because it really helps take the organization to a new level. It gives the kids so much happiness when they get an autograph or a card from their idol.
TV: You recently got involved with Teen Voices. What are you doing and why did you choose Teen Voices?
JR: I am working as a reviewer, and I am really excited it. I already had my first article put up, a review of Demi Lovato’s new album, Unbroken. I have interviewed a couple of people, which I am working on getting ready to get published. I feel really honored to be a part of the team. Teen Voices is unlike a lot of other magazines; the issues and the things that are written about are all about real teens. In other magazines, it’s all about celebrities. But with Teen Voices, it’s just about real issues and real things that girls and teens are facing, which I like. I am so glad I have the opportunity to be involved.
TV: How could our readers get involved with CFHK, either as card makers or as recipients?
JR: On our website, cardsforhospitalizedkids.com, they can find information on making cards, hosting card-making events, and where the cards can be sent once they are made. If someone knows somebody ill, is battling a medical condition in the hospital themselves, they can visit the card referral form on our website, where they can refer someone to receive a card.
TV: What are your plans for the future?
JR: I’m hoping to write a book about the experiences that I’ve had with CFHK and battling my illness. I hope to show other people, whether they have an illness or not, how they can deal with their own struggles. I also hope to do a lot of public speaking, and inspire people to give back. I hope to go to college at Georgetown, where I’d like to study international relations and have a career in public service.
TV: Do you have a mantra you live by?
JR: In life, you can’t choose what happens to you, but you can choose how you deal with it. I could choose to let my illness get the best of me and I could sit around and feel sorry for myself, but I chose to do something more with it because I wanted to make the best life that I could. You only get one life to live and it’s your choice what you do with it. You can sit and let the things that happen to you take over, or you can choose to live a happy and positive life, which is what I’m doing. I think that’s what other people need to do too.
To learn more about what Jen’s doing at Cards for Hospitalized Kids, and to see how you can get involved, check out www.cardsforhospitalizedkids.com.
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