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Putting fun on the calendar

March 4, 2016 | Alumni

The walls in Kent Wellington ’91’s corner office at Graydon Head & Ritchey LLP’s downtown Cincinnati law firm are literally covered in memories. From floor to ceiling, and corner to corner, nary an inch of space isn’t filled with family photographs, articles, paintings, drawings, and memorabilia from the events he coordinates during his off-hours.

The walls burst with color and energy—much like its occupant, whose buoyant enthusiasm belies the tragedy that inspired all of the decorations, as well as fueled his deep passion for philanthropy.

During his senior year at Kenyon College, in 1988, Wellington, an English and economics major, drove from Gambier, Ohio to Columbus with a few friends (including his future law school classmate Theodore “Ted” Adams ’91) to celebrate New Year’s Eve on The Ohio State University’s campus. Around midnight, they snuck into a party at a bar on High Street, and, just like in the movies, he saw his future.

Her name was Karen, and she was an Ohio State junior, majoring in journalism and advertising, who had just gotten off of work at Max & Erma’s, a local restaurant.

“I always joked that it was the smell of hamburgers that attracted me to her,” Wellington, who chairs his firm’s litigation group, said, with a laugh.

They hit it off immediately and continued to date when he enrolled at the Moritz College of Law the following year. Eventually, they married and had two children, Angeline and Robby, who are both currently undergraduate students at the University of Cincinnati. But the family’s life changed forever in 1997, when Karen was first diagnosed with breast cancer. And again, in the summer of 2007, when, after a decade spent battling the disease, she died from it, at age 40.

Near Wellington’s desk is a stack of printed cards featuring a peaceful image of a lake, with trees in the distance and a sketch of a sailboat. The prints are of an unfinished oil painting, entitled “Vacation,” that was created by Karen in 2007, shortly before her death. Karen was a self-taught painter, and her works are on display in her husband’s office.

Vacations took on a special significance for the Wellington family after Karen’s diagnosis. “Periodically, my wife would say, ‘I’m looking at the calendar and there’s no fun on the calendar. I’ve got chemotherapy, radiation, and tests,’ or ‘we have to go to the hospital for more scans.’ That was always a cue to me to get a vacation on the calendar,” Wellington said.

Getaways can be just as important as other treatments when it comes to a patient’s overall wellbeing, Wellington explained, because they “really change the dynamic, so that now when you are getting chemotherapy, you are thinking about that upcoming trip to Seattle or Georgia, or that dream vacation to Hawaii…Karen’s dream was always to give away vacations to other people if she beat cancer. So we picked up the torch.”

With the help of friends and family, he established the Karen Wellington Foundation for LIVING with Breast Cancer in 2007, to carry on his wife’s dream and legacy. The foundation has a fun-only mission and sends women and their families on special vacations, spa days, dinners out, concerts, and other activities to take their minds off of illness for a while.

It began as a fund through the Greater Cincinnati Foundation to see if it would, as Wellington said, “get legs.” Instead, it grew wings and expanded into the multi-state vacation-gifting organization that it is today. In its first year, the fund sent four or five families on vacation; in 2014, it gave away 50 special vacations, 20 spa days, and other fun-only activities for women living with breast cancer, their friends, and families.

The foundation asks vacation home owners to donate a week a year of their vacation homes and matches them with worthy recipients, and has recently opened chapters in Dayton (2013), Atlanta (2014—started by Kirk Somers ’91 and his wife, Elizabeth), Cleveland (2015), and San Diego (2015). A Chicago chapter will open in 2016, as well.

“We are filling a gap,” he said. “There are so many vacation homes that go unused throughout the year, and there are so many families living with cancer that are just living day to day, and the furthest thing from their mind is a vacation.

“When you are diagnosed with breast cancer, your life just kind of comes to a stop. You may lose your hair, or body parts, and you don’t feel well. Everyone else is going to parties and soccer games,” Wellington added. “What we try to do is we tell women, ‘We see you. We are here with you. We know that what you want more than anything else is normalcy.’ And a vacation with your family—that is normalcy.”

The foundation gives vacations to people from all economic backgrounds, and at any phase of their treatment (as long as their doctors clear the trip, first).

“We also try not to be a foundation that’s only for the sickest,” he said. “We don’t want to be viewed as the grim reaper. We will say, ‘You’re getting a vacation because you’re still very much alive and may outlive all of us.’”

Tragedy, however, does come with the territory. Last year, Wellington said, nine of the 50 vacations the foundation granted turned out to be last vacations, which, he explained, can be among the most meaningful for families of cancer patients.

“If you go to a visitation and you look at all of the pictures that are there, I think you will find that a lot of those pictures are from vacations, because that’s when people let their guard down,” he said. “When you have a chronic disease like cancer, or die of cancer, those last images can haunt you. On the other hand, if your kids can have that final image of mom laughing on the beach, or in the mountains, that’s really important.”

Wellington’s law firm, Graydon Head & Ritchey LLP, has been especially supportive of his work with the foundation.

“Our firm continues to be very committed to the community and we have a lot of client connections to Karen’s foundation,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of work with hospitals and physicians so it’s been interesting. At times they’ve been our clients, and other times I’ve been theirs.”

For more information on the Karen Wellington Foundation for LIVING with Breast Cancer, visit karenwellingtonfoundation.org.