In addition to the disease itself, COVID-19 brought in its wake a seemingly endless number of economic challenges. The more economically vulnerable a person was before COVID-19, the more financial challenges they face, while the entire world struggles with this pandemic.
A Most Unusual Case
A man known as M. arrived in Israel as a refugee from Sudan in 2011. He was smuggled out of Sudan to protect his life, after his work as an activist against the Sundanese government, which murdered members of his immediate family, put him in danger. He left a wife and two young children in Sudan.
To compound the challenges of being a refugee living in Israel under political asylum, M. was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, becoming part of the 1% of breast cancer patients who are male. Treated in an Israeli hospital, M. went into remission, found housing and a job in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he still wrestles with a number of physical and psychological challenges.
And then he had a recurrence of his breast cancer earlier this year. With 23 NIS ($6.70) left in his bank account, M. needed immediate assistance until help from the Israeli government became available.
This is where Shari Mendes of The Lemonade Fund stepped in. The Lemonade Fund gives emergency financial support to needy Israeli breast cancer patients, regardless of race, religion, age or sex, alleviating their most pressing financial concerns, so they can focus on recovery.
Ten years ago, at the age of 49, Mendes herself was diagnosed with breast cancer and saw first-hand how many ancillary costs – such as extra childcare, household help, transportation to and from treatments and lost time from work – accompany a diagnosis. Thankfully, the Mendes household was able to absorb the extra expenses, but not everyone can.
“You wouldn’t believe how expensive it is to have cancer,” Mendes told Breaking Israel News. “What do you do if you’re already living on the edge [financially]?”
Understanding from her personal experience that breast cancer patients need to focus on their treatment and survival, and not worry about money, a year after her diagnosis, she created a breast cancer emergency fund that gives patients a one-time grant to carry them through the process.
At the fund’s launch event in August 2011, Mendes raised 70,000 shekels ($20K). By the next month, they were already accepting applications and giving out grants. Today, the fund awards an average of 15 grants a month.
The Lemonade Fund has given 1M NIS ($293K) in grants since 2011. The initiative operates on a shoestring budget with very low overhead. With the exception of one part-time employee whose salary is sponsored by a donor, everyone involved is a volunteer. “We even use our own printers,” Mendes explained. “We are so careful about not wasting money.”
Fund Helps Everyone
Along with her practice as an architect and the administrative duties associated with The Lemonade Fund, Mendes said that, “Every single month, I try to write a story of one or two grant recipients. We’ve given to Arab, Armenian and Russian Christians, Muslims, Jews and even a Zoroastrian woman. The only requirement is that the recipient is an Israeli citizen with breast cancer.”
Mendes estimates that 20% of grant recipients are not Jewish and shared that, among Israel’s Bedouin population, “breast cancer is a huge stigma. No one will even drive them to the hospital. They don’t have easy access to mammograms and, as a result, their breast cancer is often caught late.”
A New Coronavirus-Related Dilemma
When COVID-19 hit, a new challenge for economically challenged breast cancer patients emerged. With public transportation shut down, patients without private cars had no way to get to their treatments.
Private taxis were charging as much as 800 shekels ($235) round trip. Even though patients can apply to get half the fare reimbursed through health insurance, struggling cancer patients can’t readily lay out that much money.
Sensing an urgent need, The Lemonade Fund raised 15K NIS ($4400) in March 2020 for emergency taxi rides. Then, “A total miracle happened. A guy contacted me from The Inbar and Marius Nacht Foundation. He heard about The Lemonade Fund and asked about patients with other cancers.” He said to Mendes, “What would you do if I said I could fund emergency transportation for all patients with all cancers all over Israel?”
Mendes quickly recruited all the high-tech assistance she could find. “Working 24 hours a day, in four days, we set up [an emergency taxi ride] application online, which was sent to social workers and oncologists,” she shared with pride.
The Lemonade Fund administered the whole effort. Since March, over 2,000 rides for cancer patients to get their treatments were paid for with the support of The Inbar and Marius Nacht Foundation, in partnership with Gett Taxi.
Even with public transportation in Israel reopened, it remains risky for immunocompromised cancer patients to ride local buses and trains. Unfortunately, financial support for the program is scheduled to end on July 31. Mendes shared that, as the organization grows, there is also a recognized need for a new website in both Hebrew and English.
How The Fund Got Its Name
Mendes, who now lives in Jerusalem, was 49 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and, as a result of her treatment schedule, “I totally missed my 50th birthday. I love my birthday. On my 40th birthday, I was hospitalized with salmonella and I missed that one too.”
When she went into remission and decided to launch the fund, it was originally called The Israel Breast Cancer Emergency Relief Fund.
“I decided that I’m going to make a party and launch this fund. I sent an invitation, telling people my story.” She included the catch phrase, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
That’s when everyone started calling it The Lemonade Fund. Now, all the fund’s materials are yellow. “It was a nice accident,” Mendes related. “So we branded it.”