By CHARLOTTE EMSLIE
BOSTON—Emi Burke is on a mission to guarantee no sick child goes without love and comfort.
The irrepressible founder and CEO of the Message of Hope Foundation, known for her bright yellow branding, hope fairy clothing ensembles and sunshine smile, is working at an elf’s pace this holiday season to bring cheer to children undergoing treatment in hospitals.
“We now have an incredible, small working team, and more than 1,000 volunteers,” says Burke. “We’re concentrated mostly in Boston and Baltimore, but we also have some Hope Heroes out in Philly.”
Launched in 2011, the Wareham-based 501(c)(3) charity and MassChallenge 2016 Startup contender creates and distributes therapeutic play activity bags to hospitalized kids—many of whom are chronically ill, spending weeks, months and sometimes years in the hospital.
The motivation behind Message of Hope is personal for Burke, the “chief hope ambassador” who also shares her inspirational messages through corporate speaking engagements. “When I was 6 years old, I would go on hospital rounds with my father, who is a pediatrician in Baltimore,” Burke explains. “That’s where I noticed halls filled with children without activities. There were also strict rules about the kinds of toys that would meet hospital standards.”
Burke’s passion was further fueled by her own son’s struggle with disabilities. “My son, Conor, has profound global development delays,” Burke says. “He is visually impaired and cannot speak. Spending all that time with him in hospitals, I was again seeing kids without activities. That’s when I decided to kick off the bags.”
Developing corporate sponsors has been integral to Burke’s success. The Happy Hope bags, the foundation’s cornerstone, have one simple purpose: to engage and uplift the spirits of children undergoing treatments with fun, comforting activities. The bags, as Burke explains, have three levels. “There’s outpatient, inpatient and long-term patient,” she says. “Hope bags may contain coloring kits, crayons, Play-doh, playing cards, stuffed animals, iTunes cards and so on depending on the level.”
Burke has created essential partnerships with hospitals to ensure the bags’ contents are compatible with regulations. “We partner with major institutions—the Child Life Department at Boston Children’s Hospital, for example—and give them the bags to pass out to their patients they feel most need them. These partnerships are particularly important, Burke adds, in terms of boosting efficiency. “There’s a space issue at the hospitals,” she says. “As we’ve evolved, we’ve learned how to make our packaging smaller, more compact with a greater impact.”
Message of Hope’s revenue model, Burke explains, is built upon partnerships with companies through their corporate social responsibility initiatives.
“We have varying levels of partnerships which directly equate to the number of children the corporate donation is able to serve. That donation then determines their level of participation. For example, corporations can build the Happy Hope boxes, where employees assemble the activity packets onsite at the corporation,” Burke says. She also mentions a Corporate Happy Hope Factory option, where the Happy Hope Team coordinates onsite events that include a presentation by Burke prior to creating happy hope bags.
“Our Hope Hero volunteers make these events possible by working with the employees at the corporate sites,” she says. “We have been so blessed to work with tremendous corporate partners from UPS, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Medtronic and Kohl’s, just to name a few.”
Companies also get to brand their products by printing their names on the coloring kits and other hope package contents depending on donation level.
Message of Hope is nowhere close to slowing down. In fact, “there are two major things to ramp up,” Burke says. The first is a partnership with Boston’s District Hall to pack and distribute the Happy Hope bags on a monthly basis. The second is the development of the Happy Hope boxes—the ingredients for everything a company needs to produce the bags.
“Our goal over the next five years is to secure a permanent Happy Hope Factory with a workplace development program for hope heroes with special needs in the Boston area that would be operational year round, to serve our goal of reaching 1.5 million hospitalized children,” Burke says.
The foundation’s pace is breakneck, but Burke says she wouldn’t have it any other way. “We’re exploding at the seams,” she says. “But we’re going to continue. Until there’s a cure, we’re going to continue to provide care and love to these beautiful, brave and special mini hope heroes.”
For more information or to contact Burke about donations, go to MessageofHopeFoundation.org