by Karin Tanabe
“We’re like a boutique hotel, with a few challenges,” Kathy Russell, CEO of The Children’s Inn at NIH, tells Bisnow. Kathy walks us down the facility’s art-lined halls, where we see parents making lunches and children playing arcade games. In this setting, it’s easy to forget that we’re at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda—and that all the kids have life-threatening illnesses. But this is why The Inn is here: So children have a second home while they undergo treatment.
Here's Kathy with a youngster in one of The Inn’s two playrooms. Kathy actually has a toy drawer in her office. “Kids are always lurking outside my door,” she says. “They wait to see if I’ll invite them in to play.” Kathy’s favorite toy? Princess wands!
Since opening in 1990 (with President and Mrs. George H. W. Bush leading the ceremonies), The Inn has been home to 8,000 children and now helps 1,700 families every year. Kathy’s been on its board since Day 1; she’s been the top exec since 2005. Run as a public/private partnership, The Inn raises about $3M of its $5M annual budget through philanthropic activities such as galas, planned giving and The Inn’s annual fund.
In The Inn’s living room, here’s Kathy with staff member Gabriela Quiroga and Merilee Janssen, one of The Inn’s 275 volunteers, some of whom have been there for 17 years.
Kathy grew up in an Air Force family all over the South and was trained as a hospital administrator with the U.S. Public Health Service. She began her career at NIH in 1982 as administrator for pediatrics at the National Cancer Institute. Five years later, Kathy befriended a mother from Altoona, PA, whose 7-year-old daughter Katie was being treated for a tumor in her leg. “I stopped and talked to her on a morning where she was particularly discouraged. She was in a hotel on Rockville Pike and she said that Katie was finally hungry after six months of chemo and radiation. Her choice was to bundle Katie up and take her in the cold to buy the crackers she wanted or to leave her alone in the room. What kind of a choice is that for a mother?” On another occasion, the mother told Kathy she had sat in the bathroom and run water in the bathtub so Katie wouldn’t hear her crying. “That was just another sign that we had to do better,” Kathy says.
Kathy knew The Inn was a win-win idea for children, families and NIH. But the government didn’t listen up until Carmela Walgren, wife of then-PA Rep. Doug Walgren, got involved. “A young woman being treated in the pediatric branch was Carmela’s babysitter,” Kathy says. “We had asked the NIH for some property but they couldn’t see their way clear till Mrs. Walgren got to Tip O’Neill, who called the NIH director. We suddenly had seven property choices on the NIH campus.” Other women involved included Debbie Dingell, who remains executive vice chair of the board, Chris Downey and Dianne Kay, who’s also on the board.
Kathy on the court with members of The Inn’s teen program, which focuses on the unique needs of young adults through its mantra “Strength, Hope and Unity.”
Kathy also helped found Special Love in Front Royal, a camping program for kids with cancer. Her whole family—husband Jon and sons Matt (20) and Brett (25)—participates every year. “My kids are who they are because they have grown up in this environment,” Kathy says. Brett is now a nurse at Children’s Hospital and Matt is a junior at Montgomery College.
Kathy says her team has really worked on the emotional readiness of children and families. “We have these kids captive here for a long time,” she says while showing us the gym donated by cycling legend and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong. “They are clearly not in school or in a place where they can develop social skills and make friends. We are trying to augment the NIH Education Program by using tele-video technology that allows the child to participate in their home. Physicians need to treat their bodies and we need to treat their minds, their spirits and their ability to be successful human beings after their illnesses.”