Interview by Mary Martin. Photos by Jan Osborn.
In honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness month, we are interviewing Leslie Ficke, the executive director of Clayton Dabney for Kids with Cancer. She shares about her long history with Dallas nonprofits, her husband’s support and cancer journey, and what it means for families to receive support from the Clayton Dabney team when their child is facing a terminal diagnosis.
Can you tell us about the story behind Clayton Dabney for Kids with Cancer and how you became involved?
Clayton Dabney for Kids with Cancer was founded by Shelby and Scott Dabney after the loss of their son Clayton in 1995 at the age of 6. During his six-month battle with cancer, Clayton observed other children who were either alone in the hospital or didn’t have the toys and other things his family and friends were able to give him. Shelby and Scott immediately decided to start this organization in his memory to help the very children Clayton noticed when he was ill. They called it “Medicine of the Heart” because traditional medicine was no longer working. The mission has remained the same for 25 years. Clayton Dabney for Kids with Cancer provides needy families, with children in the last stages of terminal cancer, assistance in creating everlasting memories by providing last wishes, gifts, special events, family travel and financial assistance with household expenses. Our assistance is arranged through the parents and is anonymous to the child. The most important word in the entire mission statement is anonymous. The Dabney’s goal has always been for the parents to be the heroes, not Clayton Dabney for Kids with Cancer. That is what makes what we do so special. I got involved in 2003 as a volunteer, board member, event chairman, board chairman and was hired as executive director in 2017.
How long have you called Dallas home? What was the catalyst for getting involved in the nonprofit world?
I’ve lived in Dallas my whole life, so it’s the only home I know! I actually got involved with the nonprofit world in the mid-1990s when I joined the Cattle Baron’s Ball Committee. My husband Brian was diagnosed with cancer in late 1995 and fortunately is a survivor. I wanted to help find a cure, which led me to that incredible organization. I actually chaired the Ball in 2001, 11 days after 9/11! It was a surreal time to be having a fundraising event, but the night was truly a success. Since then, I’ve been involved with many nonprofits including: Camp John Marc, Scottish Rite for Children, National Charity League, Mad for Plaid, Momentus Institute/Salesmanship Club of Dallas, La Fiesta de las Seis Banderas, and of course, Clayton Dabney for Kids with Cancer.
What are some of the ways your organization helps the community both here in Dallas, as well as Houston? Can you share a story about a child that was helped through the Medicine of the Heart program?
Clayton Dabney for Kids with Cancer has partnered with Children’s Medical for many years as the sponsor of the Family Oncology Retreat held every fall at Camp John Marc and as the sponsor of The Craft Lady until she retired in 2008. In Houston, we have partnered with Texas Children’s Hospital for many years as the Digital Photography Program Sponsor and in the last two years as the Family Reunion Sponsors.
A 5-year-old little boy who was diagnosed with leukemia just after his third birthday has experienced multiple relapses. He received a bone marrow transplant in March, but has not been able to leave the hospital since then since his immune system is so compromised and the cancer has returned. He will remain in the hospital to manage his symptoms until he passes which doctors estimate could be several weeks from now. The little boy lives with his parents and four siblings. Parents work at an automotive store, but were furloughed without pay for 60 days due to COVID-19. Parents now split time, as one sits with patient at the hospital and the other stays home with siblings. Parents have fallen behind on their household bills and need help during this unimaginable time. Clayton Dabney received their application and quickly provided financial assistance with rent, a cell phone bill and an electric bill payment. Our anonymous assistance helped the parents focus on quality time with their son rather than worrying about their finances.
How has COVID-19 shifted the way you support children and families at Clayton Dabney?
The major shift in how we have assisted families since COVID-19 started is the decreased amount of travel and party requests we have received and the increase in strictly financial assistance that is needed. All of the families we assist were struggling well before their child was diagnosed with cancer, much less determined terminal. And to throw the pandemic into the mix is truly unimaginable. There have been many stories of families not being able to be together as they face their last days with their child, as well as many who have lost the little income they had. We can provide up to $2,000 for each family and fortunately we are able to provide gift cards to be used for basic necessities or pay rent, utilities, car payments—whatever is needed. Our response time is very quick—usually 24-48 hours after approval.
You have a history of quietly supporting nonprofits across North Texas. What are some of the other causes and organizations that are close to your heart?
Brian and I have supported not only the groups that we are personally involved with but have financially supported many local and national causes including: Community Partners of Dallas, Young Life, Compassion International, Carson’s Village, Salood, Lukes Fastbreak, HP Presbyterian Church, North Texas Food Bank, Rhett Sullivan Foundation, Family Legacy, C.C. Young Senior Living, St. Jude’s, Brother Bill’s Helping Hand, Genesis Women’s Shelter, New Friends New Life, Chi Omega Christmas, and of course, the ones mentioned above.
How has your husband played a role in your community work throughout the years? What advice would you give to other couples who want to work in the social impact sector while also creating a healthy family dynamic?
Brian has been the most incredibly supportive husband throughout all of my years of volunteering, and in fact, he’s the one who encouraged me from the beginning to get involved. He’s always there to lend a helping hand in whatever I’m involved with and always becomes part of the team! We have three children who have spent their entire lives being taught that giving back to others is the best way to live. Whether it’s your time or money, there’s always a way to help others. They are all adults now and have started their own paths to community service. My youngest daughter, Kate, actually works with me at Clayton Dabney for Kids with Cancer. I would highly advise couples with younger children to lead their families by example. Show them the importance of helping others and there’s a good chance they will grow up doing the same.
What does Childhood Cancer Awareness Month mean to you and your team? How can people truly use this time to create change for children facing a cancer diagnosis?
Childhood Cancer Awareness Month means so much to our team. It happens to fall in the same month that Clayton lost his battle with cancer—September 6, 1995. And in this wonderful neighborhood we live in, there are so many more stories of loss but also stories of healing. Our team constantly says “wouldn’t it be great if we were put out of business”—that would mean that cures for all childhood cancers have been discovered and there are no more stories like Clayton’s. But cures take lots of research and research takes lots of money. The hope of spreading awareness of childhood cancer during this month is just a small way of helping. And for now, Clayton Dabney for Kids with Cancer will continue to provide “Medicine of the Heart” to those who are facing a devastating loss.
If you’d like to learn more about Clayton Dabney for Kids with Cancer, get involved with the cause, or make a donation to support families, please visit claytondabney.org.