Orange County is a haven of nonprofit organizations that all offer a wide variety of services for those in need of a helping hand. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Autumn Strier, president and CEO of Miracles for Kids, an incredible organization that provides assistance to families of critically ill children. Upon walking into the Miracles for Kid’s office, I was immediately greeted jovially by the staff in a simultaneously colorful and soothing environment. The positivity and generosity of this outstanding team permeates the office, which was made clear by the woman sitting next to me with her child in the waiting area. When I explained to her that I was interviewing Autumn Strier, she immediately smiled and told me that Autumn was one of the most beautiful souls she’d ever known. She went on to compliment Autumn’s generosity, warmth, and dedication to her families in need. After interviewing Ms. Strier, I can safely say that I couldn’t agree more.
Question: What was your motivation for starting Miracles for Kids?
Autumn Strier: Oh goodness, I should probably tell a little bit of a story and I will keep it as brief as I can. When I was a child, I was on the receiving side of charity and I became very close with one of the families that helped me. You can fast-forward 15 or 20 years when I returned to California from the East Coast, and the younger brother of one of the families that helped me wanted to get more involved in what he was doing through employee contributions through his company. He didn’t have the bandwidth, though, because he was too busy running his company and I was still working for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society back East. On my birthday, he said, “Why are you doing that? I will give you a tax ID letter and you can create a non-profit out of an employee contribution fund.” I said, “No, absolutely not. I can’t do that. I’ve got too much going on.” I went home and thought about it, and realized that if you have the opportunity to build an organization to meet the needs in a community, how could you possibly say no? So then, I said yes, and it all began from there! Miracles for Kids really became personal to me after my second child was born one month after this conversation [with the younger brother], when she became a patient at CHOC at nine-days-old. In the room next to us was a family with a little boy battling Leukemia, and I could overhear the conversations regarding who was going to be paying rent and, “How are we going to get back home?” and “Do you have bus fare?” and “What happens if the treatment takes longer?” Questions like that remind you of how blessed you are to have the resources you have, and how quickly you can lose those resources when you must realign your entire family to save your child and stay stable.
Q: What did you do next?
AS: I came home a few days later and Charlotte, my second child, is fine now. I am blessed to have such a healthy child. I thought, “Well, I think the world just handed me what needs to be our mission statement,” which is to provide aid to low income families with critically ill children. From there, it was a cold call to the foundation at CHOC, a conversation with a social worker in the cafeteria–a wonderful woman named Mitsy–and the question was simple: what do families need? And the answer was immediate access to resources to provide stability solutions. Nothing bright and shiny. No major trips, no special gifts. Really at this point no dolls or other things that make children smile, which are so important, but how about rent? How about a gift card to Albertsons? How about a gas card so you can get to and from the hospital? How about bus fare? How about clothing? How about shoes? Those kinds of things became paramount to building the organization and they are still, today, the things we focus on most. While we have eight programs, all of them look at stability for a family with a child battling a life-threatening illness.
MS: Wow, what an incredible story. I’m glad your daughter is okay now.
AS: She is! She’s my middle and, yes, I am blessed that my children are healthy, and I also recognize that I would leverage every single thing if they weren’t. That’s what the thousand plus families that we’ve helped so far have had to do. Health is the great equalizer. You can always get another job, but your child has to come first.
Q: I actually have a question about that–how many families have been helped by Miracles for Kids?
AS: Over a thousand, to date! We started slowly with 31 families in our first year and now we average over 200 a year. Those are average family sizes of four so, if you extrapolate, you can get maybe four to five thousand individuals helped over the last 11 years with rent, food, and other basic necessities.
Q: Can you go over the mission of Miracles for Kids?
AS: Provide aid to low income families with critically ill children. Actually, I shouldn’t say that’s our mission. Our stated mission is to improve the lives of children with life-threatening illnesses and the families who care for them. But, really, if I think about how we do it, we do it by targeting programs that provide that aid.
Q: Describe the different programs offered through Miracles for Kids.
AS: Our Miracles for Kids Grant Program is probably our most important. It’s an application-based program in partnership with children’s hospitals, where a social worker provides an application to families who are identified to have financial need. It’s then given to Miracles for Kids, we meet the family, do in-person interviews, and determine if they’re a candidate for financial help. That program provides monthly financial grants, up to a certain amount, for basic needs and solutions. They’re very limited, but they include rent, utilities, gas, food, and healthcare payments. From that program really stems everything else that Miracles for Kids provides. Our goal is stability. Once we can provide financial aid, then from there our families have access to our ancillary programs, which include our Basket of Miracles, which is delivery throughout the year of fresh, canned, frozen, and dried food; household supplies; specialty items; and seasonal gifts if it’s near a holiday. We have an employee plus volunteer base that hand delivers those [packages] to the homes and hospitals of the families four to five times a year. In addition to the Basket of Miracles, which is food and supplies, we have the Closet of Miracles, which provides gently used clothing, shoes, linens, and other household items at no cost to our families. Our wellness programs also include ongoing therapy and access to concierge-level medical care for uninsured members of the families. Our Fund-a-Family Program allows an individual donor to adopt a family, and provide a higher level of care to that family in crisis. We also have a separate section of wellness programs that are aimed at providing our children and their siblings with access to outdoor education–a little sunshine, some fun–and those are our surf and paddle camps, which operate the entire summer.
Q: Surf and paddle camps? How fun! Tell me more about that!
We alternate paddle camps throughout the summer at Baby Beach in Dana Point and surf camps up in Huntington Beach with a running partnership with Hobie, Billabong, Quicksilver, and the Ocean Institute. We’ll do that seven to eight times throughout the summer. We’ll bring them to the beaches where our camps are, but because you can’t have everyone in the water at the same time, we also do castle building contests, carry-the-coconut contests, and lunch! If it’s down at Baby Beach, we’ll do ocean awareness, so the Ocean Institute will come out and provide environmental awareness, like how to poke a sea anemone, what to do if you are feeling like you’re drowning or in crisis, how to access lifeguards, and it’s just really fun. One of our board members is an avid paddler, and he started this program in probably 2008 or 2009. It’s grown so much; it’s one of our most popular programs. It’s wonderful, and you can’t underestimate the value of getting a kid out of a hospital room or a sibling out of their home, because the siblings are the ones who really get lost. The siblings aren’t being paid attention to because they are healthy, and we try not to let that get in the way of all of the fun.
Q: Do you provide your families with other therapy options?
AS: I think one of the things that’s most important is what we spent the last six months of last year working on, which was a pilot program for mental wellness. So, weekly therapy sessions by one of our staff members, who will become a licensed social worker in June. Under the auspices of professionals in that field, she’s been conducting a pilot program to determine if there is value in providing mental wellness therapy to our family members, in order for them to remain stable and strong for their children and their family. We just reviewed the statistics this week and we saw that actually 90% of the family members got huge value out of the therapy sessions. We are starting the third phase of the pilot program Monday, and then we are going to turn it into a permanent program. It also speaks to how careful I am to adding to our programs. There are over 3,000 charities in Orange County alone and they’re all incredible. Our job is not to replicate a service. Our job is to fill a void where a service is needed and, for our demographic, there are very few services that help to provide the holistic solution that Miracles for Kids is looking to provide, because they’re focused in other areas. When it comes to mental wellness and our other program we started last year by purchasing an apartment complex, Miracle Manor, those are really our two additional initiatives: more stability with shelter and more mental stability. Those are the things a child is really going to need in order to do really well at home.
Q: Tell me more about Miracle Manor. I saw that on your website and it’s absolutely amazing.
AS: Miracle Manor is a 12-unit apartment complex located a half a mile from CHOC. It will be fully renovated and fully occupied by the end of March. We have five families living there currently; they moved in on Thanksgiving weekend. It is an amazing sanctuary. Its purpose is to provide a safe place, and subsidized place, because Orange County rent is not only so high, but it’s also difficult to find vacancies. The city of Orange, where Children’s Hospital of Orange County is located, has less than a 3% vacancy rate. So, even if you had the resources to live closer to the hospital during your child’s treatment, it’s not necessarily an option for you. Miracle Manor makes sure that if you live there, you can walk to a grocery store, major freeway, or a hospital. That’s very important, because many families choose to sell their car or other transportation resource in order to save funds for their family. Providing them with a close location is really critical to keeping them financially stable. It’s also an emotional respite or sanctuary. It’s got bright colors and flowers and fun, safe places for the kids. We are in the process of building a yellow brick road that goes all the way around the building, so should a child need to walk for exercise or to process any medicine, they have the ability to do that in a safe location behind a security fence, where they are completely safe. One of the neatest things about Miracle Manor is that our very first resident, the Colby family, is actually the first family I wrote a grant to when I started Miracles for Kids back in 2005. Because of their daughter’s constant battle with HLH, they will never be away from the need for support. At the same time, they want to support other families. They have moved into Miracle Manor and are our property supervisors, helping other families keeping the site clean, safe, and maintained. They keep a watchful eye on all of our other families, and then you have the added benefit of the emotional support that one family can give to another family, who is going through what they’ve been through for the last decade. It’s not just a housing complex or place to live–it’s a home. While they are there, our goal is to provide respite but also rehabilitation. Financial literacy programs, donation programs, bankruptcy services if needed, and ways to save funds [are available]. We set up accounts for them, where a portion of each month’s security deposit is set aside for them, so they have funds when they leave. It’s fully furnished by Ikea World, who has donated all of the furniture for all 12 units. We have over 50 companies who have donated materials and labor to help us build Miracle Manor.
Q: How did these companies help build out Miracle Manor?
AS: I had a panic attack on Christmas Eve, because we’ve signed the papers and we now own our first housing facility. We recognized the need in the community for a housing solution and we’ve decided to take a step up and create our own solution for our demographic, which was an important step in growth for Miracles for Kids. But now, you have to build it! You have to make it beautiful! You have to lay conduit and framing, roofing and cement, and all of the things I’ve never done. I’m not in the business of building. So, what do you do? Well, you better find folks! It was 3:00 in the morning and I couldn’t sleep, so I pulled out my phone and typed in “celebrity interior designer” because I’m thinking, “Well, if we’re going to make it a fun place to live, we need to make it beautiful, and you might as well start with the dream and work your way down.” So I e-mailed the website with the photo of a warm, friendly face and she was named Kelly Ellis, who is a celebrity interior designer. She’s had many TV shows and is really all over the place, and I thought, “Well, this is crazy, Autumn. You’ve lost your mind!” I woke up and apparently she doesn’t sleep either because BOOM! There was an e-mail back reading, “Oh my gosh, where have you been? I’ve been waiting for this all my life! I want to be involved, absolutely, let’s go!” We have been working closely ever since. She has donated 100% of her design services.
Q: How do you determine how to design the homes?
AS: Every home is custom designed, and she meets with the families and talks to them about what colors are important and their needs. This is so important. Last week, we had the first funeral of a Miracle Manor child. He was a wonderful young man named Javier Hernandez and Kelly’s husband happens to be an MMA trainer. What Javier loved more than anything was MMA, so during her summer of designing pin boards to build Javier’s home for his mom Jocelyn and his brother and sister, Kelly also reached out to an MMA star. She was able to get signed memorabilia, frame it, and we decorated his room before the day he came home from CHOC with these special pieces that mattered so much to Javier. We do that because we understand and recognize the limitations of Miracles for Kids to solve medical issues. We cannot be that solution. What we can do is provide the support, the daily miracles, the small advocacy that helps so much, and the friendship that the family needs in order to get through what is the worst part of their child’s life to date. We can do that in real, intangible, unsexy ways because we can’t fly to Disneyland and, you know, we work with our friends at Make-A-Wish Foundation for those special moments. What we get to do is put food on the shelf, put them in a home, and help with furniture and humidifiers and clothing and things that are just necessary. With the other community partners that we have, and we have so many, they are able to do what they do best. The Orange County Community is so special. We are able to net together to create the stability that any family would need when they had to divert all resources in order to support their child during their treatment period.
Q: How can people get involved in helping?
AS: I think one of the most impactful ways is to start by becoming a Basket of Miracles volunteer, which puts you in front of a family’s home delivering and assembling items that we get throughout the year. If you’ve already been exposed to a family in crisis at this level, then we have other ways that you can help, including on the beach with our surf and paddle camps, assisting with our annual gala, our golf tournaments, office administration, organizing and collecting goods that we get donated throughout the year–there’s really an endless amount of opportunities for ways to be a part of the lives of a Miracles for Kids family. Never underestimate the power of a single donated item. Something that is so simple, such as the signed poster for Javier, made him cry for hours [tears of joy] as he saw it hanging on his wall. It may be so simple to some, yet life altering to others. We always need donated items, such as gently worn clothes, linens, shoes, towels, those kinds of things are desperately needed by their families who are not buying those items because they are paying for prescriptions, medical co-pays, gas, and everything else.
Q: What has been one of your proudest moments as President and CEO of Miracles for Kids?
AS: Oh goodness, I don’t know that I know the answer to that. I’ll be completely honest- I don’t have one. Throughout the year, I’m always asked what my financial goals or growth goals are, and, as a CEO, I think it’s kind of funny because I don’t see things in that way, even though I’m a banker by trade. I go to sleep every night worried [if], the next day, I’ll be able to provide enough support for our families. I would say, if every day I’m able to do that for one additional family member or introduce one additional community member to a family in need, those are my greatest moments. Miracles for Kids was not created by one person writing a mission and going out there. We were built, brick by brick, one small day at a time over 11 years. I think my proudest moment is looking back at the thousands of volunteers throughout the years, and that includes board members and donors and everyone else that gets involved just because they recognize the need in the community. I’m not certain I have one [proudest moment] and maybe that makes me the luckiest person in the room, because I have so many. Every day that I’m here is really very special. I think the thing that is one of the greatest values of building and running and growing my own nonprofit is that I’m able to balance the realities here with the realities in my personal life. So, when challenges come up and tough days come up, you recognize and value that you are not alone. And no matter how tough your day is, for certain, someone is having a tougher day. That’s worth it’s weight in gold. I think some people say that perception is everything, but I think perspective is everything.
Q: What have you learned from Miracles for Kids?
AS: The endless capacity of the community. Our community has an endless capacity for giving. It’s not a quote as much as it is shock and awe on a regular basis. Just yesterday, we brought on a new part-time employee at Miracles for Kids, who was a guest at our gala last year. She was just so incredibly moved by the families that she reached out and was like, “Can I please work for you? I’ll volunteer, do part-time, anything, anywhere.” That’s just amazing to me that the goodness and kindness of our world exists here at home. It’s endless, and I don’t know that we always think that way about our communities. So, what did I learn? That we should probably think that way more often about our communities and neighbors, and tell the story more to give them the chance to do more. My one wish would be that others who are skeptical of the nonprofit industry, because of the many reasons that they could be, just give us a chance or any charity a chance, because your life will be forever changed by volunteering.
OC Office: 714.730.3040
LA Office: 310.734.4448