Cancer has a way of taking over a person’s whole calendar. Seemingly endless medical appointments, treatments, and recovery periods can make it difficult to pencil in day-to-day activities, much less special stuff like pizza parties and vacations. For Karen Wellington, keeping fun on the schedule for her family was a priority.
Karen, who passed away in 2007, fought breast cancer for a decade. When she was diagnosed at the age of 30, she had a toddler and a baby at home. No matter how sick she got, Karen was determined to fill whatever time she had left with them with moments that would become happy memories.
The Karen Wellington Foundation celebrates Karen’s firm belief in the importance of fun. Founded in 2007 by Karen’s husband, Kent, the nonprofit organization, which now has 11 chapters nationwide, arranges all-expenses-paid experiences for women battling breast cancer, from luxurious spa days to relaxing stays in private vacation homes.
“The foundation was inspired by her love of taking time off,” says Robby Wellington, 24, who was 12 when he lost his mom. “When she was going through chemo and radiation, her calendar was pretty bleak. She realized how important it is to pump the brakes and take a break. To remember that there’s a bigger world out there than cancer.”
The importance of having fun
During her last year, Karen had been particularly excited about an upcoming vacation to Martha’s Vineyard. “Don’t you dare cancel that trip,” she kept telling her husband. On the day she passed, Karen’s family decided to start a fund in her memory in lieu of flowers.
“She always said she wanted to send a family a year out of pocket on a vacation when she beat cancer,” says Angeline, 22, who was only a year old when her mom was diagnosed. “Since she wasn’t able to do that, we said, let’s do it for her. Since the day she passed away, we’ve done close to 500 vacations for families with breast cancer.”
The Karen Wellington Foundation accepts nominations for women living with breast cancer in chapter cities, including Cincinnati, where the Wellington family lives (KWF has also made exceptions for other types of cancer). With a waiting list that’s currently more than 100 names long, the organization relies on donated airline miles, vacation home days, and experiences like concert tickets. Friends and family of nominees help fundraise to cover other expenses.
“A lot of foundations are about research and cures,” says Robby. “But for a lot of these women, the cure isn’t coming in time. The second you raise money, we’ll plan a trip for your friend and her friends to kick it in South Beach at a five-star hotel three weeks later. We turn things around quickly because we know timelines can be tight.”
“We surprise them with fun money. You need to spend that fun money on fun things.”
On occasion, recipients will ask if they can use some of the funds to pay for a medication or school supplies. “We’ll help them find a foundation that covers that for them, but we are about having fun,” says Angeline. “We’ll deliver a lot of trips in living rooms and tell people that we’re here for you, you’re part of our family now. We surprise them with fun money. You need to spend that fun money on fun things.”
Angeline recalls one beaming woman at an event telling her about a hot air balloon ride she took in Sedona with her fun money. The foundation’s website showcases a recipient photo gallery filled with happy, relaxed faces: sisters in posh robes at a spa; a young couple at the beach; a family with kids in Mickey Mouse ears at Disney World.
A few magical moments
Robby and Angeline know better than most how meaningful it is to make memories like this. “What so many of these women want is a bit of normalcy,” explains Robby. “They don’t want their kids to feel different. A big part of traveling is saying, ‘OK, things are going well, we can kick back and relax and be ourselves.’ These women’s lives have been cancer. It’s tough to step back and say, ‘I’m not done living yet.’ There’s no better place to be than with family and thriving, and for kids to see their mom smile.”
Around 30 percent of the trips planned by The Karen Wellington Foundation end up being last vacations. “Those are the most important ones,” says Robby.
At Karen’s memorial service, Kent spoke of his vivacious wife’s passion for travel, noting how she’d twirled with flamenco dancers in Spain, sung with gondoliers in Venice, and ridden horseback along the rolling hills of Maui. “And for a magical few moments, when visiting good friends in the San Juan Islands, your mother even swam with the whales,” he told his children.
“What so many of these women want is a bit of normalcy.”
Robby barely remembers when the orca mother and her baby swam up to his mom’s kayak—he was only three at the time and sitting on the shore with his little sister. “She must have been scared out of her skin at first, though,” he says with a laugh. Other memories are sharper, like the time the Wellington clan stayed at a rustic family cabin in Canada where Karen had visited as a girl.
“We flew to Minnesota, drove across the border and took an old boat across the water,” he says. “We picked wild blueberries as a family and put them in milk jugs that we’d cut in half. We fished for walleye and trout. My uncles would hunt and bring back dinner. It was a cool trip. We weren’t worried about much else.”
Angeline, who studied abroad in Alicante, Spain last year, definitely inherited her mom’s wanderlust. She traveled with friends to France, Hungary, Switzerland, and Morocco. Some of her fondest memories, though, are of the frequent trips to Florida her family took when she was young.
“I remember our annual family trips to Seacrest, Florida. They were filled with sunny days spent on the beach, lots of shopping with my mom and amazing dinners surrounded by family and friends,” says Angeline. “Time really slowed down. When you’re on vacation, there’s a sense of out of sight, out of mind. You can’t see cancer in the photos we post because it’s not there.”