People from our region have been counted among those who volunteer most frequently. In 2009, North Dakota ranked 12th in the nation for volunteerism. Here are the accounts of two local mothers who, through their children’s medical conditions and giving hearts, were inspired to foster a life of giving, not just during the holidays, but all year round.

It was through a dream, rather than a book or suggestion, that Judy Kubalak of Fargo chose to name her first daughter Charity.
“I’d never known anyone named Charity before, but I told my husband about this dream I’d had, and that her name was Charity in my dream,” she said. “My mom’s middle name is Mae so she became Charity Mae. It was really a God thing.”

She couldn’t have known then how prophetic the name would be. “I didn’t really connect charity with Charity, but I could see her name was so very fitting for her as she grew into the wonderful person she was; always giving, always being kind to everybody, even to the person who didn’t have any friends,” Kubalak said.

Nor could she have known that her daughter’s life would be cut short due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy.

From the moment the diagnosis came when she was only four years old, Charity seemed intent on living life to the fullest, doing the things most little girls want to do––biking, swimming, dancing. In time, it also became important to her to live life with joy and without drawing attention to herself.

In fact, nobody but family knew of the tenuous diagnosis that put Charity’s life at risk; not even her best friend.

The giving and living continued until her last day. It was the night before her church Confirmation, and Charity, 16, had decided to stay up late to cuddle and rock her new baby sister, Summer, and chat with her mother about the events of the next day. When she did finally fall asleep that January evening in 1998, she never awoke.

Reflecting on her daughter’s life, Kubalak spoke with pride and awe over how her daughter moved through the world exhibiting selflessness. “When I had something wrong with my heart, they found out about it because of her heart condition. I had to be operated on, and even though her heart had gotten worse, she was much more concerned about me.”

The trip that helped jumpstart a heart
Piecing through factors that had helped foster Charity’s giving spirit, Judy recalled a significant trip the two made when Charity was 10––an adventure to Disneyworld through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

As soon as we got back, she felt she needed to give back, too, not just to Make-A-Wish but to other kids,” Kubalak said. “She wanted to volunteer at the children’s hospital, to read to the kids, to play with them, to try to make their stay a little less scary and more fun.”
Though Charity was too young to volunteer on her own, the hospital staff told Kubalak that if she were to accompany her daughter, they could spend time with children dealing with terminal illness.

Kubalak remembers a moment during that time when Charity proved her willingness to look beyond her own discomfort to help another. One of the young cancer patients, feeling a sudden wave of nausea, asked Charity to grab a pan. “She hated to see anybody throwing up,” Kubalak said, “but Charity held the tub for her, and at that moment I realized just how selfless she was in doing that, knowing she would feel sick herself.”

She won’t take much credit for her daughter’s selflessness, believing instead that Charity came into the world exuding abundant charity. As she watched Charity consistently spreading love and light to all she knew, Kubalak recognized she was being taught by her daughter how to live life well as much as the other way around.

Though struggling to make ends meet as a single mother during much of Charity’s younger years, Kubalak said Charity always insisted they give to the United Way, so she’d always reserve part of her paycheck for that cause.

The two also helped serve the homeless and less fortunate at an annual Christmas Eve dinner.

“Charity would help even as a very young girl, even though she had trouble carrying the plates of food, and she helped clean the tables, too,” Kubalak said. “There was so much joy in doing those things together.”

As a teen dance student, Charity enjoyed bringing a few dance friends with her to a local nursing home to perform for the residents there, overlooking nerves and any trace of vanity to focus on the giving.

Following Charity’s death, Kubalak continued to give, first through raising money for cardiomyopathy research, which required stepping out of her comfort zone as a natural introvert to organize local benefit concerts and golf tournaments. She also helped establish a scholarship in Charity’s name through South High School, where Charity had attended school. “The person who receives the scholarship doesn’t have to have a 4.0 (grade-point average). They just have to have the same qualities that Charity did––a smile and a giving heart,” Kubalak said.

And she became involved in the Make-a-Wish Foundation, first as a volunteer, then on the board, where she has served for the past six years.

A Magical Encounter
It was through her work with the local branch of the Make-A-Wish Foundation that Kubalak came into direct contact with Joe Keller, 11. Joe’s parents, Fargo residents Joni and Gary Keller, learned their son has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a type of genetic, degenerative muscular disease, when he was in kindergarten.

Though news of the disease was devastating, Joni said, they wanted Joe’s condition to be understood by his peers, so they brought his new leg braces into his classroom at Nativity Elementary to explain some of the changes they’d be witnessing in Joe. “I didn’t want it to be a big deal for them, or for them to be afraid,” she said.

The following year, Joe was offered a dream wish through Make-A-Wish Foundation. An avid fan of the Harry Potter books, he asked to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park being constructed by Universal Studios.

“When we first talked to Joe about it, he didn’t really see that he needed a wish,” Joni said. But by the time the park was finished several years later, Joe was ready.

So in the summer of 2010, Joe, his parents and his sister Kayla flew to Orlando, where they were met by his aunt, Jane Bjornstad, who shares his affinity for the young wizard characters of J.K. Rowling’s popular series. “He got to be there for the grand opening of the park, along with ten other ‘wish families,’ the day before it officially opened.”

A special surprise of the trip involved the children and their families having the chance to meet nine of the actors from the Harry Potter movies, including the leading star, Daniel Radcliffe. “There was a lot of screaming going on when they found out, as you can imagine,” Joni recounted. “Joe was the last one to meet Daniel Radcliffe, so he got to spend the most time with him.”

Joni said the actors were extremely gracious and genuinely interested in the kids. The visit was followed by V.I.P. treatment at the park. “It was an unbelievable trip that will never be duplicated with the opening of the park and the cast being there.”

Before the trip, the Kellers already had been fundraising for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, during which time Aunt Jane had come up with “Joe’s Heroes” as a way to round up friends and family in a collaborative fundraising effort. She even designed T-shirts that participants could wear to show their support.

As a wish recipient, Joe quickly moved from being on the receiving end of a charitable act to wanting to help other children receive a similar gift, just as Charity had. So during the 2009-10 school year, the Kellers joined the “Walk for Wishes” fundraising event and began drumming up local support, including from Joe’s fourth-grade class at Nativity Elementary School.

The contagious nature of giving
That first year, Joe’s Heroes raised $3,700 toward the cause. This year’s donations have garnered nearly $13,000––enough for two children to receive a wish.

Kubalak said it’s been inspiring for Make-A-Wish folks to witness how Joe’s friends have rallied behind him. “You don’t see this every day. It’s pretty unusual,” she remarked. A plan is now in the works to introduce Joe’s classmates to one of the recipients who will be benefiting from their generosity.

“That’s a story in itself,” Kubalak said of the support Joe has generated from his peers. “They’re learning at such a young age about generosity, and they’re going to meet others who will catch that energy. It’s going to just keep on going like a domino effect, spreading outward to even more people.”

Joni said that for Joe it’s all about inspiring others, but the family has been inspired in turn with the generous response of his classmates. “A parent told me the other day that the kids in his class are becoming great people through their friendships with Joe. It’s so rewarding for Gary and me to see these kids and the way they treat him, the kindness and caring and compassion. It’s unbelievable for kids their age. They’ve really embraced what he wanted to do,” she said.

More than writing a check
Like Charity Mae, one of the things people comment on after meeting Joe is his perpetual smile. Perhaps that’s in part because Joe knows what not all adults have discovered: that giving isn’t just about the money. Beyond reaching into a bank account––which is also necessary, of course––one eventually comes to see that reaching into one’s heart is just as important.

Kubalak learned this best through her daughter, both from her life and her death. It wasn’t until after she lost Charity that she was able to give of herself in a way that was impossible before.

Though it’s not attached to any charitable organization, Kubalak has taken it upon herself to watch for families in the area who lose a child, and when possible, to seek them out and share a comforting word or deed that only another mother who understands can offer.
It’s not the easiest kind of giving to do, she admitted, but in the end, it’s the most rewarding.

“Visiting someone who has lost a child is really difficult for me because it makes me reflect back on how I felt when I lost Charity, but it makes it more real to (the other parents). They can see that I’m still living and I’m still able to take care of my kids and go on even though at the time you feel you’re going to die from heartbreak. It helps them keep moving forward one minute at a time, to know there’s a life beyond this, and that it does get easier, even if the pain doesn’t ever completely go away.”

Though not everybody has the chance to see the effects of a life of giving, because of her daughter’s example, Kubalak said she’s been able to witness it firsthand.

To this day, 14 years after Charity’s death, her friends are still reaching back to Kubalak in return for what Charity had given them in her young, brief life. Some make a point to visit her when they’re in town, and she’s received many wedding invitations through the years. Former classmates continue to visit Charity’s grave site, leaving messages of love and gratitude. One even left a dollar that he said he owed her and had never paid back.

“I look at her life and all the things she taught so many people, and I really think God sent her here for a special and unique reason,” she said. “Sometimes it takes us a lifetime to be able to do all that she did in that short period of time.”

Who gives most and why?
Conventional wisdom has held that when it comes to charitable giving, men have deeper pockets than women. But a recent study shows that on average, purses are opened up more often than wallets in the world of philanthropy.

The findings came from the study conducted through the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, which took into account data from 8,000 American households, revealing that women are the more generous gender at nearly every income level.

According to an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (“Most Women Give More Than Men, New Study Finds,” October 2010), previous studies on gender and charitable giving have included married couples, which made discerning specific giving patterns between the genders difficult. Instead, the new study examined only households headed by single men and women and found:
Giving by men and women is closest at the lowest income level of $23,509 or less.

More than a third of women making below that were more likely to give to charity than men earning the same amount.
Gender differences in giving are more prominent among higher income earners. All but 4 percent of women who made more than $103,000 gave to charity, while only three-fourths of men at the same income level did.

At almost every income level, the amount women gave rose above that of men in similar circumstances. In a nod to the men, it was found that those in the $23,510 to $43,499 were larger givers than women by 32 percent.

Widowed men gave more on average to charity than women whose husbands had died. But never-married, divorced or separated women gave more than their male counterparts.

Jennifer Thompson, Director of Development for the Dakota Medical Foundation, said that since women are more likely to outlive men, they’re often left with money so ultimately decide how an estate will be distributed.

She also noted that in general, those who have been the recipient of giving are often more likely to be inspired to give to others.

When someone has been helped, in any form, whether monetarily or simply someone came over and helped rake their yard, there’s that feeling that they want to be able to pay back or give back what they’ve received,” Thompson said.

An example would be the many local families who have experienced medical crises and benefitted from an outpouring of community support.  “Once they get through the difficult time, they want to turn around and help someone else,” Thompson said.

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