From lemons to lemonade
How one breast-cancer survivor is helping other women battle the disease with The Lemonade Fund.
Shari Mendes Photo: Courtesy
Jennah is a single mother being treated for breast cancer at an Israeli
hospital. She can’t afford to travel to her sisters who live in distant towns,
and she has to purchase medications that aren’t covered by her national
insurance plan. Her situation was desperate until a hospital social worker
helped her apply for a grant from “The Lemonade Fund,” a pet name for the Israel
Breast Cancer Emergency Relief Fund (IBCERF).
“To be ill and also suffer
from poor financial conditions is extremely difficult,” Jennah wrote to the
fund’s founder, Shari Mendes of Ra’anana. The grant enables her to visit her
siblings when she needs them, purchase treatments for her chemotherapy side
effects, and also buy her daughter books for school.
gives me peace of mind and strength to continue to cope,” Jennah
Mendes firmly believes that easing the financial burden of
breast-cancer patients also helps them heal.
“When you’re stressed about
money, it’s hard to get well. If you could be calmer about your financial
situation it could impact recovery. I think this helps just like medicine
Mendes inaugurated the fund on August 7, 2011, precisely 12
months after a routine mammogram revealed what turned out to be early-stage
“I received the news that I had breast cancer on the Ninth
of Av, one of the saddest days of the Jewish year. It seemed fitting to do
something positive on the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis – specifically on
a day that addresses ways to heal after destruction,” says the architect and
mother of four.
During a year of treatment that successfully put her
cancer into remission, Mendes wondered how financially strapped women were
managing the costs of the disease.
“I remember during the beginning of
the process, being astounded at the ancillary expenses,” she says.
lucky because I had disability insurance, but many women don’t have any cushion.
It is expensive to be sick. You and your spouse lose time from
Maybe you need extra child care and cleaning help, and perhaps you
have to buy prostheses and a wig, and medications that aren’t covered by
[national health insurance].
“There are a million things, and I thought
people shouldn’t also have to be in a financial crisis when they’re enduring the
worst stress they’ve ever been through. I can’t help cure their cancer, but I
can help alleviate their financial burden.”
Mendes talked to other women
and to social workers at hospital breast-cancer centers, coming away convinced
that nothing like what she envisioned existed in Israel. The Israel Cancer
Society, for example, gives NIS 1,000 grants, and another fund aids Ethiopian
immigrants suffering from cancer. Mendes wanted to give a significant amount,
and specifically to those with breast cancer.
“We definitely saw a big
need, because all the existing funds are very small and sometimes it takes a
while for the money to arrive,” says Amalia Magen, head social worker at the
Breast Center at Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, where the fund’s first five
grantees are patients. “This fund came really exactly in time.”
who needs something like breast reconstruction must come to the hospital many
times over a few months, and in the meantime she cannot move or function well,”
Grants range from NIS 1,000 to NIS 4,500, depending on
need. To keep administrative and overhead expenses to nearly nil, Mendes
incorporated IBCERF under the umbrella of the Herzliya-based non-profit ESRA
(English Speaking Residents Association) Welfare Fund. Only two months later,
with the help of NIS 50,000 she raised through a single e-mail blast to
acquaintances and family, she was in business.
Very quickly, word of the
Lemonade Fund spread, and applications are coming on behalf of women from all
walks of life – Jews and Arabs, new immigrants and longtime Israelis. Breast
cancer is the most common type of cancer in Israel, with about 4,000 new cases
Seeing that the need is greater than she anticipated, Mendes
is now appealing for funds more publicly.
“Hospital social workers all
over Israel have learned about the fund, and when a patient is desperately poor
they urge them to apply. Many of these women are single with children, and they
and their families suffer tremendously due to the additional burden of a serious
Adele Hunter, head of ESRA’s Welfare Committee, explains that
ESRA has been giving to Israel’s needy for more than 20 years through
A committee comprised mainly of retired
social workers screens applications every month.
“Shari’s fund is run
along the same lines,” says Hunter. “We invite Shari to review the applications
that come in from oncology department social workers.
Together we decide
which ones meet the criteria and how much we can give.”
Mendes devised a
rigorous application process, open only to those in their first year
“It’s important to me that it be transparent,” she
“We’re giving grants, not asking for money back, so we really need
to vet the applications.”
Those who are accepted get a check a week
later, and their hospital social worker receives a letter with all the
Magen says up to 30 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each
month at Meir alone. She sends IBCERF applications only for women in the most
“Now I have a 46-year-old woman who has four children –
one with special needs – and an unemployed husband, and her salary was feeding
Now she has to go through breast surgery and chemotherapy,
and I’m so happy to tell her that maybe Shari Mendes can help her immediately –
not only when the effects of the chemo get bad.”
Another Meir Medical
Center patient, a lowincome, 32-year-old mother of a toddler and an infant, was
diagnosed during pregnancy and is now facing a mastectomy. “She got help from
the Lemonade Fund, and she didn’t know how to get through this otherwise,” says
Magen. “The grants also help their spirits, to know someone wants to help
This has a big psychological impact.”
Mendes’ nickname for
IBCERF refers to the philosophy of making sweet lemonade out of the sour lemons
one receives in life. “I like the name ‘Lemonade Fund’ because that’s the
message we try to transmit,” says Magen. “You have a great crisis, but from this
you can rise above and realize the support you have, including your own
strengths to cope. The fund can help you see a new opportunity.”
got a very open heart and really wants to make a difference,” adds Hunter. “If
she had more money, she’d give more money.”
Mendes can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or through the IBCERF page on Facebook.