Caring for Our Kids

Meet a few of the remarkable people and organizations dedicated to Madison youth

I usually bump into my old friend Danny Thomas once or twice a year, when I’m lucky enough to get up north and even luckier to stop in his tavern. Danny owns KD’s Wildcard in Sayner, Wisconsin. Lately, though, I’ve seen a lot of him here in Madison. You probably have, too. Danny and his son Marshall are poster boys for the Ronald McDonald House’s latest fundraising campaign, Light the House. (I nearly ran off the road the first time I saw their smiling faces on a Beltline billboard.) Four-year-old Marshall is being treated for histiocytosis, a rare autoimmune disease he’s had symptoms of since birth. So he and his dad regularly make the 240-mile trek down I-39 to the American Family Children’s Hospital. “We left at midnight in November,” he told me recently. “We’ve always got a bag packed; we just don’t know when we’ll be going.”

Imagine the line item for gas in the family budget. Moreover, imagine the money Danny saves by spending the night—he figures seventy stays in the last few years—at the Ronald McDonald House when he’s here. He’s told me on more than one occasion how grateful he is to have a homelike space to retreat to after a grueling day at the hospital—that is, when he and Marshall are lucky enough to leave the hospital. I can’t even begin to imagine what the experience must be like for them.

Equally hard for me to fathom is a family in need of the services of a nonprofit called Safe Harbor. Children who find themselves there must speak the sometimes unspeakable truth about physical or sexual abuse they’ve experienced, or domestic abuse or violent crimes they’ve witnessed. Since it opened in 1999, more than 1,650 children have been interviewed in the warm, friendly environment at Safe Harbor, which is often the first step in any legal process if allegations lead to criminal charges. A former colleague, Lois McDonald, who now does outreach and development for Safe Harbor, invited me to tour the facility and meet director Brenda Nelson. While I was there, a child’s parents waited in a cozy and private caregivers’ room. Time must’ve stood still for those folks that morning as their little one shared her story. While Safe Harbor is the best possible place for a family to land under these circumstances, you can’t help but worry what will happen to her. Fortunately, Safe Harbor also offers ongoing case coordination and referral services, a caring bridge to what could very well be a promising future, one full of people young and old who care deeply about that child’s health and happiness.

A few days after my visit to Safe Harbor I found myself in the United Way building, sitting across the table from Dora Zuniga, who heads Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County. A recent chat with a friend and her “Little” compelled me to track down the busy Dora for a long overdue visit. I had come seeking a brain dump on how the organization was doing and to mine for story ideas, but I’d also come on a personal mission. I’d been thinking about becoming a “Big” for a while but had heard the program was always looking for more adult men to make matches with boys than women with girls. That’s true, Dora told me, and then promptly suggested that I consider a family match that my husband and daughter could participate in and that wouldn’t be gender-specific.

Dora also shared with me a new study in which “adults mentored as children through Big Brothers Big Sisters are more likely than peers with similar backgrounds but who were not involved in the program to have a four-year college degree and incomes of $75,000 or more.” The idea that I could make this kind of difference in the future of a Madison kid in addition to my own is exhilarating.

Just think about these remarkable people and organizations—hundreds and hundreds of them—looking out for the welfare of our kids and our communities. Lucky us.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine. Comments and letters can be sent to 7025 Raymond Rd., Madison, WI 53719, or bnardi@madisonmagazine.com. Letters we publish may be edited for space and clarity.

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