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Washingtonians of the Year 2012: Kathy Russell

Creating a haven for kids battling illness.

Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

When she was a young administrator at NIH, Kathy Russell’s walk to her office took her past a line of cribs holding sick children awaiting diagnostic testing. She began talking to the parents and learned of the heartbreaking challenges they faced. Most were far from home, living in hotels, trying to juggle care for an ill child with family and job responsibilities. Since then, Russell has dedicated her life to easing the journey for these children and their loved ones.

Thirty years ago, Russell helped organize Special Love, which runs Camp Fantastic, a summer program for kids with cancer. Each year, more than 112 children go to the camp to be kids instead of patients. Many return later as counselors—embodiments of hope for newly diagnosed children and their parents. When Camp Fantastic’s leaders felt they couldn’t expand their program to include kids with HIV/AIDS, Russell started Camp Funshine to serve them.

She was a major force behind the Children’s Inn at NIH—a home-like environment where young patients and their families can stay—and is now CEO. Her windows look out on the front door, so she can see families as they approach: “I want to be ready to figure out how I can help.”

“It’s because of Kathy Russell that thousands of children and families have been supported through the perilous journey of catastrophic disease,” says Dr. Philip Pizzo, the inn’s first medical director and former dean of Stanford medical school. “In a nation that sometimes struggles to find true heroes, Kathy stands out for her integrity, love for others, and devotion to making Washington and the world a better place.”

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