By Darren Garnick
September 23, 2009
As a real estate agent, Hudson’s Zenaide “Zee” Swenson is used to describing the nooks and crannies of countless houses on the market. But when she gets home, it’s her living room that tells the stories.
The bay window in her downtown Victorian is where her son Andrew stared outside at the neighborhood kids celebrating his seventh birthday in 2002. The street was blocked off for the festivities, which included jugglers, pony rides, a wild petting zoo and a full slate of children’s entertainment. Andrew was too weak to join his friends at the party, but he was allowed to play with a skunk, an alligator and a ring-tailed lemur on the couch. Germs and hardwood floors be damned.
“The animals won’t pee on the floor, Mom!” Andrew promised with a laugh.
Zee and her husband John still marvel that their son, then connected to an oxygen tank, was even remotely concerned about making a mess. He died days later from Leukemia. But he was able to fulfill a few last wishes: to swim with dolphins at SeaWorld, to have a pet beagle — named Cinnamon Raisin Bagel after one of the few foods that didn’t make him nauseous — and to sleep in his own bedroom again.
That last wish almost didn’t happen.
Zee had quit her job to care for Andrew full time as he prepared for a bone marrow transplant. John says he eventually lost his job as a mechanical engineer when his boss wasn’t sympathetic about the need for flexible hours. He had been shuttling back and forth between work, Children’s Hospital and his older son Jonathan’s school, but the juggling act quickly collapsed. If it were not for an onslaught of community donations, the Swenson family would have lost their home.
Zee and John now devote their spare time to mortgage relief for families of children undergoing bone marrow transplants. Their charity, Andrew’s Helpful Hands, pays the mortgage bills of struggling families for up to one year, the time required for a transplant patient to rebuild his or her immune system.
“We were middle class in income, we never paid our bills late and we never imagined we’d be in a position to lose our home,’ says Zee. “We never even thought about foreclosure.”
Andrew would have turned 14 this past July. Over the past seven years, his namesake charity has helped 22 families pay their mortgages. Without any major institutional or corporate support, the nonprofit raises an average of $50,000 to $75,000 a year — mostly through the annual Gold Ribbon Holiday Reception at which small companies band together at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Marlborough instead of their usual parties.
Mostly through word of mouth, the Swensons are now recruiting companies to buy tables at the Dec. 4th semi-formal party, which includes a buffet, DJ and live entertainment. At their living room table, they also raise money by assembling wedding party favors that include lapel pins with Andrew’s colorful handprint — an art project he made at Children’s Hospital.
Framingham bride-to-be Tracy Muscarella, who is getting married in October, chose to make a donation to Andrew’s Helping Hands and give pins to her guests instead of the traditional trinkets or candy-coated almonds.
“We wanted to give something to thank them for being a part of our wedding, but at the same time wanted to give to a charity that could use our help,” says Muscarella, who has done volunteer work for AHH. “And we didn’t want to spend a large amount of money — that we don’t have — on something that will collect dust or land in the trash.”
The Swensons allocate 100 percent of donations to the mortgage relief program. Having no resources for advertising, the family hopes their handprint-decorated PT Cruiser will generate plenty of buzz. On the highways, motorists sometimes roll down their windows and give them the “high five” gesture.
“The two hands on the hatchback are positioned like Andrew is pushing the car,” says his father. “He’s pushing us down the road.”
(To contribute, visit AndrewsHelpfulHands.com )