The Christmas before Mitch Chepokas died of bone cancer, he asked his dad to take him to the bank.
The 9-year-old cashed out his $6,000 in savings, divided it into envelopes and slipped them under the hospital doors and pillows of other kids fighting cancer. It felt so good to do good, Mitch told his dad: “I want to do this every year.”
He made his father “pinky swear” he’d continue even after he was gone.
Mitch died in 2003, and within a year, his parents, Steve and Becky Chepokas, started what is now called the Pinky Swear Foundation.
The Minnesota-based foundation gives away $1 million each year to families of children with cancer. Help comes in the form of rent, mortgage and utility assistance and weekend getaways at local hotels. It also includes simple gestures of kindness, including gift cards and food for families sitting at their child’s hospital bedside.
Last year, 4,000 families confronting childhood cancer received help from Pinky Swear.
“We’ve now given away $15.5 million and that’s not enough,” said Steve Chepokas of Chanhassen, who has now mostly stepped back from day-to-day foundation operations. “We need to give away more. I am not satisfied and I never will be.”
Funding for the charity, initially called Miracles of Mitch, comes from a combination of individual and corporate donations and proceeds from events, including the annual Minneapolis Kids Triathlon at Lake Nokomis. About 75 percent of its budget goes to its mission; other expenses cover the cost of hosting fundraising events and administration.
Pinky Swear’s focus is on “impacting families where they are at right now,” said Executive Director Erica Campbell.
Other charities raise critical funding for research and exciting trips, but many families need immediate help and encouragement, Campbell said. Pinky Swear, with offices in Minnesota, Iowa and North Carolina, works with families throughout the journey.
Social workers often refer families to Pinky Swear, which sends an orange envelope containing a letter from the Chepokas, a resource guide and about $250 in gift cards.
Families usually ask for additional help when their child is in the middle of treatment. Pinky Swear helped nearly 800 families pay a bill last year, and it stocks food pantries at three children’s hospitals so families can eat without leaving their child’s bedside.
“It’s bridging that gap,” Campbell said. “You are going to quickly lose income. You will spend a lot of time at the hospital — away from work.”
Near the end of treatment, families are offered an “All-Star Weekend” to celebrate. In Minnesota, that includes an overnight at the Hilton Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport, gift cards for meals and fun at the nearby Mall of America.
“It gets them back to a sense of normalcy,” Campbell said. “They are rebounding as a family.”
Pinky Swear helped Jack Taggart’s family when he was diagnosed with leukemia at age 8. His father Buzz Taggart had been laid off soon after the diagnosis, jeopardizing their access to health insurance and ability to pay the bills. A social worker connected the Lakeville family with the charity.
“It was a scary time,” said Buzz Taggart, now a project manager for a remodeling company. “They helped pay the mortgage for the next month to give us some breathing room.”
Pinky Swear also paid for some car repairs and arranged for a family All-Star Weekend. Pinky Swear staff filled the hotel suite with gifts for Jack and his younger brothers, Evan and Drew, including a pile of Harry Potter books and passes to Nickelodeon Universe amusement park.
“We just got a weekend to spend time as a family,” said Jack, now 14. “It was really fun.”
Mom Sherri Taggart said after worrying about bills and managing medical appointments, it was a joy and relief to spend a weekend having fun and playing as a family.
The Taggart family has returned the favor, raising $10,000 for Pinky Swear and participating in the triathlon.
When Jack’s cancer returned in 2017, Pinky Swear offered the family another weekend away, which they will take in 2019 after Jack has healed from a hip replacement.
“Pinky Swear has brought us so much peace of mind,” Sherri Taggart said. “With cancer, there is so much uncertainty. Knowing we won’t be headed for financial ruin and they are there to help us along the way, it’s so nice.”