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CareBox Program helps people with cancer get supplies they need

Jillian Domingue stands in the warehouse of the new offices of CareBox Program. Around her are shelves lined with all kinds of medical supplies, from pill dividers and ointments to no-sew blankets and socks. A pallet of nutritional supplements sits on the floor.

On another shelving unit, the shelves are lined with the name, age and cancer diagnosis of each of the clients of CareBox Program. Each client will receive one of the brightly colored reusable bags filled with supplies needed during cancer treatment.

Domingue, 27, started CareBox Program six years ago as another concept while she was a senior at the University of Texas. Originally ColorCancer was a program in which people could order different colored shirts based on the cancer that had touched them.

That program grew, but Domingue wanted to do something more impactful for people during their cancer diagnosis. She read a story about the 10 most helpful things for people with cancer during treatment and came upon an idea: What if there was an organization that would provide these things and many more?

Three years ago in a windowless closet in a shared office building, Domingue started what became CareBox Program. As of last week, the program has delivered 459 boxes of cancer supplies worth $226,000.

“I love helping people,” Domingue says simply.

Domingue is like “watching a mad a genius at work,” says Lisa Keefauver, who was CareBox Program’s first employee in that windowless closet. She interviewed with Domingue over Skype as she was moving to Austin from Michigan and answered a post for the job. “She never stops thinking, never stops moving. … Fidget spinners were invented for Jillian. It can be dizzying at times.”

Domingue, Keefauver says, never got stuck in the way things had to be done. She would think it and try it. If it worked, great. If it didn’t, she would try something new. “It inspired me to be more creative and not do the same thing,” says Keefauver, who had spent decades working in nonprofit organizations doing everything from starting food pantries to writing grants to organizing free therapy programs.

“I’ve done a lot of good things,” she says. “This blows all of that out of the water.”

Personal loss

Everyone who finds their way to work at CareBox Program has a story of personal loss to cancer. For Domingue, by the time she started CareBox Program, she had lost three people to cancer.

When she was in kindergarten, her friend Aly was diagnosed with leukemia and died a year later.

“I remember my mom telling me Aly had passed away.” As a first-grader, she says, “you can’t know what death means.”

Aly’s death had an impact on her. By high school in the Houston area, Domingue was volunteering at a hospital in the oncology unit. That’s when she saw her friend Gabby, whom she knew from softball, walking down the hall. Gabby was 15, a year younger than Domingue, and had been diagnosed with adult renal cell carcinoma. Gabby was getting ready for surgery. Domingue went home, designed and had printed 100 T-shirts that said “Team Gabby, Stay Strong.” She showed up with the shirts and handed them out to Gabby’s family. Soon, all over Houston, you could see 2,000 “Team Gabby” shirts.

Gabby died a year later.

When Domingue moved to Austin to study human development and family science at the University of Texas, she continued to volunteer. She was a ride director for the Sierra route of the Texas 4000 bike race. That’s where she met her friend Ruel, who was riding for his dad. Along the way, he got sick and was diagnosed with stomach cancer and later died.

The semester before graduating college, Domingue started ColorCancer as a way to connect people who had had an experience with cancer, either themselves or a loved one. The idea was that you could order a T-shirt with the ColorCancer design in the color of the type of cancer that you had experienced. You could even customize your shirt. People across campus gathered wearing their shirts.

She sold 1,200 shirts in the first two months, then began selling the shirts to high schools and other colleges to host events.

Instead of looking for a job after graduation in December 2011, Domingue left college as the executive director of ColorCancer. The organization grew, and more and more groups were ordering their shirts. ColorCancer became the beneficiary for the Color Runs in Austin, Houston, Dallas and Round Rock, but really, ColorCancer was raising money for other organizations in the cancer world. It was a visible impact, but Domingue didn’t feel the personal impact of her work.

Then she read a story online about the 10 things people with cancer need to help them through treatment. The worry about cancer is not just the cancer itself — it’s all the side effects of treatments, including damage from falls, infections and malnutrition.

The model for cancer has shifted, Domingue says. “We keep people out of the hospital; it’s almost all outpatient. Now they are dealing with the side effects at home.” And their loved ones become caretakers.

The idea of giving people with cancer the supplies they needed percolated, and in 2014 Domingue posted the advertisement for a person to help her create a new nonprofit.

Building CareBox Program

Keefauver remembers showing up to that windowless closet and sitting down with Domingue with a pad of paper and a pen. There they came up with the guidelines of who could apply to receive a box of supplies, what the supplies would be, how they would raise funds to get the supplies and how those supplies would be delivered.

Early on, they decided that CareBox wouldn’t give supplies to clients based on their income. Cancer has a way of making even the person with the best insurance and best savings go broke. “Every little bit helps,” says Linda Linhardt, who has colon cancer and received a CareBox in June. “I wasn’t worried about finances, and now. …”

Domingue and Keefauver put together a list of 75 supplies and used Facebook to link clients’ needs to an Amazon wish list. You would go on to fulfill the wish list of the client you wanted to help.

CareBox’s first client, Oscar, received a box in October 2014.

CareBox connected with oncologist offices’ and set up informational tables and handed out pamphlets. Domingue staffed the program with interns and volunteers.

As CareBox grew, though, Domingue knew there had to be a more efficient way to procure the supplies and deliver the boxes. Grants began coming in from different organizations, including 5th Age of Man Foundation, an Austin-based foundation that helps nonprofit organizations accelerate growth to the next level. Team ReJoyce Weekend of Hope washer tournament in Moulton found the old ColorCancer website and connected it to the new CareBox Program site. The tournament raised $33,540 for CareBox Program this year, and last year CareBox Program became part of the Statesman Season for Caring program, which raised more than $840,000 for 12 local nonprofit agencies.

Domingue learned that nonprofit work often “all comes down to funding,” she says, and yet she’s a strong believer in following her gut and believing that it will happen. “That’s how the universe is,” she says. “We don’t know how we’re going to make it, and the next week something always happens to make it possible.”

CareBox has been able to really change the model from a crowdfunding model that funds individual requests to one that raises funds for the whole program. It now has a comedy event and a carnival to help raise funds. CareBox worked with the manufacturers of the supplies on the list to give it wholesale or even better prices. CareBox now pays about 45 percent of retail on supplies, many of which would not be covered by insurance or would take a long time to get if insurance did cover them.

The supplies get shipped directly to the new office space, which has a warehouse. CareBox also works with other nonprofits such as the Austin Diaper Bank to donate supplies.

When clients contact CareBox Program, they fill out a sheet of requested items. Then volunteers package the supplies for each client. Another volunteer delivers the supplies to either the clients’ homes, offices or treatment centers. Clients can get a new box every three months.

“It was just like Christmas,” Linhardt says. “It was really cute, and they have really sweet volunteers, too.” Linhardt says getting the supplies she needed like wipes, gloves and masks to keep infection at bay delivered was amazing.

CareBox Program has become not just a supplier of items, it also helps people with cancer know what they might need. “We’re educating people,” Domingue says. “These are supplies that can be helpful.”

“When you’re looking at the list, you don’t think about these things,” says client Sam Sosa. “I never would have thought of getting a tray that I could sit in bed with. … It makes you think about little things to make the day-to-day easier.”

Susan Stanclift, who volunteers and often is the one putting together the boxes for clients, says clients “are just so happy and feel so blessed to get these supplies. … ‘Oh, you’re my angel,’” she recalls a client telling her the week before.

Building CareBox Program

CareBox Program is becoming more well-known but continues to work to get the word out. “I hope they find the cure and CareBox is no longer needed,” Keefauver says. Until that time, the CareBox team, which now includes Keefauver as a volunteer, are working on CareBox becoming a basic part of cancer care in Central Texas. “It should be just like you’re assigned some form of treatment, you’re also assigned, ‘Here’s your CareBox.’”

CareBox Program is getting calls and emails from around the country and the world about how to get a CareBox or how to start a program.

“I really honestly believe it has the potential to be a national program,” Keefauver says. “It’s very replicable.”

Domingue continues to come up with new ways to grow the number of clients CareBox is serving and the funding to go along with that. In the first six months of this year, it already delivered more boxes than last year.

In addition to growing CareBox Program, Domingue, the youngest of five children who grew up with a mother she calls “a professional volunteer,” recently became a foster parent to a 10-year-old girl.

“There’s always going to be excuses,” Domingue says, and then she says she realized, “I could have done everything while helping a foster kid.”

She had expected to be a foster mom to a baby or toddler and was even given a baby shower by her co-workers.

“I believe very strongly in my life that I’m following my internal compass. This 10-year-old shows up, and you change what you’ve been thinking. You need to change the plan.”

That’s the core of who she is, says Rhiannon Nunziato, the operations director at CareBox Program. “It’s, ‘What do you need? I’ll figure it out.’”

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