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The Island Gift of Life seeks those in need, and volunteers

The Island Gift of Life Foundation grew out of Charlotte Hannabury’s appreciation for the financial and spiritual support her family received during her daughter Cheryl Hannabury’s 10-year battle with stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Cheryl Hannabury, founder of the Island Gift of Life Foundation.. (Courtesy photo)

The community stepped forward with contributions to help provide financing for a bone marrow transplant and, equally important, the emotional support the family needed.

Former Shelter Island Presbyterian Church Pastor Bill Grimbol led the effort among parishioners to make a significant financial contribution that, with Cheryl Hannabury’s life savings, and a medical team willing to cooperate with the uninsured patient, made the procedure possible.

The Foundation began as Cheryl’s dream, according to a story by Reporter feature writer Charity Robey. In a 2016 article, she recalled how friends and family brought the Foundation to life, serving patients and families with cancers or other serious illnesses.

Volunteers have stepped forward for years to raise money for Islanders and other East End residents who need the kind of support the Hannabury family received.

For the past two years, Islander Joe Kelly has led the effort, having joined the Gift of Life Foundation Board six years ago. Mr. Kelly, now retired, worked as an attorney for the United Nations for many years, bringing project managers the resources and hope they needed to help vulnerable people and communities in the developing world. The aim was “to lift people out of poverty, famine, ill health and degradation,” Mr. Kelly said.

Prior to his endeavors at the UN, he was a practicing attorney before pivoting to join the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. “The UN afforded me the privilege of combining my legal skills in contract formation and management with my commitment to improving the lives of the underprivileged,” Mr. Kelly said.

He and his wife Susan have been full-time Island residents since 2014, relocating from Bridgehampton after 20 years there. They opted for the “relative tranquility of the Island over the faster pace and hubbub of the South Fork,” Mr. Kelly said. “My motivation was and remains to endeavor always to look for ways that I can be of service to anyone facing challenges in the business of life … It is the responsibility of everyone to be the hand that reaches out to anyone who might feel as though they are left to overcome obstacles by themselves.”

To achieve its goals, the Foundation wants to increase the size and diversity of its Board, he said.  “We would particularly welcome those who are in a position to help identify those in the community who might benefit from a helping hand,” he added. He also hopes to attract people with experience and interest in developing and implementing outreach and fundraising initiatives.

An annual fundraising gala has been the focal point of the effort, but this summer, he and Bob Lipsyte, president of the Shelter Island Senior Citizens Foundation, manned a table at the Farmers Market on Saturday mornings at the Shelter Island Historical Society to make the public aware of the Gift of Life Foundation’s efforts. They were joined on one occasion by Kathleen Mulcahy, executive director of Sag Harbor-based Fighting Chance, an organization providing free counseling and connections to resources for cancer patients.

Mr. Lipsyte and Ms. Mulcahy saw natural links between the Gift of Life Foundation and Fighting Chance in assisting people in need of resources. Both met Mr. Kelly at Chamber of Commerce events and started talking about serving the community. “Joe laid the groundwork for nonprofits to work together,” Mr. Lipsyte said. That gave rise to reaching out to the Historical Society about getting a table at the weekly Farmers Market.

They found many people who didn’t know such resources are available to them. “They didn’t know this kind of help existed,” Mr. Lipsyte said. Their needs are “crisis driven” and cancer diagnoses and other serious illnesses generate immediate concerns, he said. “We can fill in the cracks for each other and help each other,” he said about the cooperation among nonprofits.

Also, that cooperation can remove competition among organizations for contributions, he added.

Ms. Mulcahy said Fighting Chance  offers free counseling to cancer patients and their families dealing with the negative psychological effects of cancer — hyper-anxiety, depression, insecurity and sleeplessness.

The organization has a wide network of resources to connect patients to help. It’s the country’s oldest free cancer counseling center, operating on a regional basis covering about 600 square miles in a largely semi-rural area, according to the organization’s website.

“We all have to work together,” Ms. Mulcahy said. A current project is raising money for a wheelchair-accessible van, which could be shared by East End towns to take patients to doctors’ appointments, tests and procedures beyond Riverhead. Southampton and East Hampton have limits on the use of their vans beyond their borders.

Shelter Island has a van and volunteers who use their own vehicles to transport patients to medical appointments. But accommodating wheelchair-bound patients is critical, Ms. Mulcahy said.

Some have to get to medical services in Commack and Stony Brook and need a van capable of going the distance and providing wheelchair accessibility, she said. She has requests pending with East Hampton and Southampton towns and plans to reach out to Shelter Island as well to support such a purchase.

Mr. Kelly said while it may seem as though there is competition for contributions among nonprofits,  he believes the community has many generous individuals, families and groups “eager to contribute their time and financial resources to organizations that are positioned to help those in need.”

By raising awareness across the board, he said people will “target their generosity towards areas that mesh with their personal interests, priorities and needs.”

Mr. Kelly expressed surprise at people who have been reluctant to seek help. “Perhaps they aren’t aware that help is available. Perhaps they don’t think that they qualify for assistance or feel some sense of shame or embarrassment,” or it may be some other reason, Mr. Kelly said. “There seem to be as many reasons as there are individuals,” he said.

The Gift of Life has “no strict means test,” Mr. Kelly said. The organization takes each inquiry and application on its own merits starting from “the assumption that people reaching out for help quite likely need it.”

All applications and deliberations are confidential with only case managers knowing the identity of the applicants they serve. The Board doesn’t know applicants’ identities.