Every summer for the past four years, Tara Hess, 28, has organized a Christmas in July backpack giveaway. Her family's charity, the Jolie Foundation, works to assemble and distribute about 150 fully stocked backpacks to children in foster care in the tri-state area, a collaboration with Safe Place: The Center for Child Protection and Health at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).
“They tell us what age ranges to buy for, and what the kids need,” says Tara, who orders the supplies and navigates the logistics of stuffing the backpacks and delivering them to the team at the Fostering Health Program (a clinic within Safe Place) for distribution. “Every child seen at the clinic gets a backpack.”
The Jolie Foundation’s decade-plus partnership with Safe Place began out of what was almost a tragedy for Hess family: the near-death of daughter Gigi from the H1N1 virus in 2009. To tell the story of the Jolie Foundation is to tell the story of parents Jim and Laurie Hess, their children, and the role that CHOP has played in the family’s health and well-being.
Jolie’s journey sparks a desire to help
Jim and Laurie own a packaging, assembly and manufacturing business in suburban Philadelphia. They have five adult daughters: Kristin, age 35; Tara, age 28; Jasmine, age 25; Gigi, age 25; and Jolie, age 23 (for whom their foundation is named). All their daughters, with the exception of Kristin, were adopted from China.
It was during the adoption process for Jolie, their youngest, that the idea for the foundation was born. While waiting for the adoption to finalize, Jim traveled to China in 2001 to meet the baby and arrange for her medical care. Jolie was 6 months old, and suffered from a cleft lip and hepatitis B. She was also malnourished because of problems feeding. But Jolie’s hepatitis forced the cleft lip surgery to be postponed indefinitely.
While in Nanjing, Jim was struck by the number of children in orphanages who needed major medical care – surgery to repair a cleft lip or palate, a club foot or a damaged heart, among other illnesses and disabilities. Lack of funds meant that many kids went without this essential care.
A foundation is born, a family expands
Jim and Laurie saw an opportunity to help. With the support of the translator who worked with Jim in country – a woman who's now one of their most trusted friends and business associates – they established the foundation, connected with doctors in the country, and began to fund necessary surgeries for kids in Chinese orphanages.
“We were able to fund around 40 operations per year,” Jim says. “And over the years we have received a number of thank-you letters from parents we’ve never met, who later adopted one of the children that our foundation helped.”
Jolie finally came home to the U.S. in June 2002, at age 2. About 3 months later she was found to have “spontaneously healed” from hepatitis B, paving the way for her surgery.
“There was never any question but that we would come to CHOP for the surgeries,” Jim says. “We knew it was the best place.”
A deadly virus strikes another daughter
The Hess family’s connection to CHOP was cemented in 2009, when daughter Gigi, then age 11, contracted the H1N1 virus and almost died.
Laurie points out that H1N1, while deadly, did not get as much publicity as COVID-19; it was “minimized as just a bad cold,” she says. Indeed, two of Gigi’s sisters had previously caught the virus and recovered just fine. But within 48 hours of Gigi getting sick, she was in CHOP’s intensive care unit (ICU). Both her lungs had completely filled with fluid. Doctors induced a coma and put Gigi on a respirator.
“She was not expected to live,” Laurie says. “We lived with that uncertainty for a week and a half. After that, she turned a corner.” Though Gigi suffered some lung damage, she was allowed to come home after two and a half weeks in the hospital.
Laurie and Jim both express awe at the talent and attentiveness shown by the entire ICU staff. “We understood clearly that they saved Gigi's life,” Laurie says. “The quality of care she received was extraordinary. We’ve never seen nurses and doctors that were so smart, with that level of dedication."
Bringing the Jolie Foundation to CHOP
In the aftermath of Gigi’s illness, Jim and Laurie wanted to expand the foundation’s footprint into the U.S., in partnership with CHOP. When they found out about Safe Place, led by Section Chief Philip Scribano, DO, MCSE, it felt like the perfect fit. After all, both Jim and Laurie started their careers as social workers.
Safe Place provides state-of-the-art, evidence-based, trauma-informed care to children with suspected child maltreatment, as well as support to their families. Fostering Health Program, within Safe Place, offers consistent, high-quality medical, behavioral and psychological healthcare to youth in foster care in the Philadelphia area.
“The Hess family’s unwavering support of the Fostering Health Program is unmatched,” says Judy Dawson, nurse coordinator for the Fostering Health Program. “Most children we see do not have anything that is ‘new’ and completely theirs. It’s such a special feeling for them to get a brand-new school bag, in the color of their choice, filled with the supplies they will need – including expensive items like calculators.”
Looking ahead: more to be done
Laurie and Jim are on the cusp of selling their family business. In the aftermath, they plan to expand the Jolie Foundation’s nearly 12-year relationship with Fostering Health. This partnership has been forged through a shared commitment to helping vulnerable populations with essential medical, psychological and material support. It’s a relationship born out of crisis, owing much to the lifesaving care Gigi experienced in CHOP’s ICU as an 11-year-old struggling to survive a deadly virus.
"We like to give back, and we want our kids to be involved,” Laurie says. “They understand it’s their responsibility to help where they can. Tara has already taken the Christmas in July event and run with it.”