It's 3 p.m. on Sunday, and Mark Ehleben is at in Warminster, picking up an order of baked chicken large enough to feed at least 50 people. No, Ehleben is not a competitive eater, and no, he is not planning a huge party to watch the NFL playoffs.
Instead, Ehleben is providing an evening of relief for families in the Oncology-Cancer Center of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia by serving a welcome alternative to the standard menu of hospital food and fast food fare.
"The families on this floor can spend days, weeks, sometimes months on this floor, staying with their kids as they get treatment," said Ehleben. "You already have so much to worry about that feeding yourself a decent, home-cooked meal gets pushed down the list of priorities."
Providing monthly meal donations is just one factor of the B-Strong Foundation's mission to comfort families as they go through the agonizing reality of a child diagnosed with cancer. The Warminster-based non-profit also puts together specialized gift baskets for families that reach out to them and raises money for other non-profits, such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
"We put together transition baskets for families who just received the diagnosis and were admitted into the hospital," said Ehleben. "They didn'y have time to go home and get some clothes our toiletries. We also make baskets for the kids with games and toys, things to occupy their minds and get them to think about something else."
Ehleben and his wife, Tracy, formed the B-Strong Foundation in 2009 after their son, Brandon, died at the age of 9 from Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). Brandon was diagnosed in April 2008, spent almost 250 days at CHOP before passing away in May 2009. During that time, Mark and Tracy benefitted from the kindness and support of the hospital staff and volunteers.
"We want to try and give that back and turn an unbelievably tragic experience into something positive," said Ehleben.
The charitable work of the B-Strong Foundation captures Brandon's open and generous personality, Ehleben said, and preserves his memory.
"He was a very outgoing kid," said Ehleben. "He was friendly with everybody, even strangers. He always wanted to help other people out. This organization helps his spirit live on."
Mark and Tracy's fledgling charity received a major boost in December 2009 when Little Leo's owner, Julie Spagnolia, offered her services to provide the hot, main dish for the monthly meal donations. The B-Strong website lists the main dish for the next three months and asks for donated side dishes and desserts from the general community.
On Sunday, the back of Ehleben's car was stacked with containers that had mashed potatoes, a green bean casserole, bowtie pasta and cheese, beverages, rolls, cupcakes and more. After the 45 minute drive to CHOP, he met Suzie Norvilas, a representative from the Ronald McDonald House who oversees activities in the family room for the Oncology-Cancer Center.
Together, they loaded up a cart in the ambulance bay with the food, then set up the dinner in the family room. Norvilas said that she usually organizes donated meal services about 2-3 times per week, and they are welcome breaks from the norm.
"The families are so grateful," said Norvilas, who first met the Ehlebens when Brandon was a patient. "The cafeteria food can get expensive and boring. Plus, a lot of families are uncomfortable leaving the floor to eat in the cafeteria. On days like today, the food is just a few feet away. They can make a plate and go right back to their child's room."
Mark and Tracy are dedicated to continue growing the B-Strong Foundations resources and mission. The four-person board, including Spagnolia as vice president/meal coordinator and Addie Garner as vice president/secretary, constantly look for ways to raise money and awareness.
They received a huge boost last week when they received a $6,000 check from Burpee Seeds, which collects donations every year during the holidays and at the company Christmas party and selects a local charity to receive the funds.
An ice skating fundraiser has been planned for Feb. 12, 5:15 p.m.-6:45 p.m. at the Warwick Ice Rink. For $10, visitors will receive access to the skating rink, ice skate rental and a slice of pizza and soft drink from Pizza Plaza. Individuals are also encouraged to make online donations at the group's web site.
Video courtesy of Metra4.com.