Jen Rubino was asleep in her bed at Chicago’s Lurie Children’s Hospital, giving her temporary solace in an otherwise abnormal and unwelcomed chapter of her childhood.
When she’d wake up, she’d be thrust back into the reality that instead of getting ready for her junior prom or gymnastics meet, she was confined to her bed while recovering from hip surgery, where doctors had to break it in five places to reconstruct it. This operation caused her to miss her entire junior year at Maine South High School in Park Ridge, Ill., 20 miles northwest of downtown Chicago. It wasn’t the first time her health robbed her of “normal” time in her youth, as she was also diagnosed with a rare childhood bone and connective tissue disease at age 11.
But she awoke on this day in 2011, her father handed her an envelope from a hospital staff member who had asked him to deliver it to her when she arose from her rest.
Inside was a handmade card with four simple words: “Stay strong. You’re amazing.”
“It was such a small thing, but it really made a big difference,” said Rubino, a current international affairs undergraduate student at the George Washington University.
In turn, she has used that big difference in her life to do the same for hundreds of thousands around the world.
During her lengthy hospital stay following the reconstructive hip surgery, Rubino was surrounded by other kids whom she described had it even worse than she did—cancer, tumors and the like. She had spent some of her time figuring out ways to help fellow children facing chronic or, heaven forbid, terminal illnesses.
“Then I got the handmade card, and I figured that would be my way to pay it forward,” Rubino said.
Thus, the foundation for Cards for Hospitalized Kids (CFHK) was built. It has become a globally recognized organization that, distributing more than 500,000 cards to hospitalized children in all 50 states and in countries across the world.
Later that year, Rubino started making cards for hospitalized children that she would then mail or personally deliver to local hospitals. When she mentioned this to her local library, where she served on its advisory board, staff there immediately asked to partner with her.
The library held monthly card-making events, booking just a room on the weekend for any community member who wished to grab some markers and scribble out some words of encouragement for a hospitalized child. The attendance kept growing until the room reached max capacity. Word of mouth quickly spread, and libraries from other communities and even states asked if they could help.
In the 12 years since its inception, CFHK has ballooned from a local endeavor to a reputable organization with cards delivered to hospitalized kids all 50 states, France, Australia and China.
“Jen took her own hospital experience and turned it into a positive. Cards for Hospitalized Kids provides patients and families an unexpected note of encouragement and support when they need it most,” said Julianne Bardele, director of public affairs at Lurie Children’s in Chicago. These messages have a tremendous impact at the right time, and we are forever grateful to Jen and all those who participate in Cards for Hospitalized Kids for their efforts.”
CFHK distributes general cards monthly, as well as holiday cards to children’s hospitals and Ronald McDonald Houses. Celebrities and athletes have supported the charity by spreading the word on their much-followed social media accounts and even donating cards and autographs for kids to receive with their cards. Those have included Olympic gold medal-winning gymnasts Aly Raisman, Nastia Liukin, Shannon Miller and Dominique Moceanu in addition to celebrities such as Lauren Conrad, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Jesse McCartney.
Groups at GW, including the gymnastics team, have also supported CFHK by making cards and even hosting events.
All walks of life have come together—from senior homes to preschoolers to schoolchildren in France making cards to learn English—to support the charity’s mission of “spreading joy, hope and magic” to children whose health has challenged them. CFHK has shown just how much a little can go a long way.
“There are so many kids who get cards from us and feel so impacted that they want to get involved and volunteer,” said Rubino, who has also done motivational public speaking and writing bits. “It really is a way to pay it forward, and it’s impactful for both the people who make the cards and the people receiving them because that really helps people realize their capacity to make a difference.”
Rubino herself has received numerous accolades, including a Point of Light Award from President George W. Bush in 2012, a President's Volunteer Service Award from President Barack Obama in 2013, being named one of Her Campus’ Most Inspiring College Women in 2017 and, most recently, recognition from the American Red Cross last February.
But it’s never been about or for her, as she has appreciated how every step in the charity’s journey has been caked in kindness. When Rubino needed a larger space to make, stuff and store all the cards—which quickly overwhelmed her bedroom “office” as the charity grew, a local company leased her actual office space in Chicago free of charge. She has a team of about 20 to 25 volunteers who help her check all the cards that came in to make sure they meet the guidelines and mail or distribute them to their intended hospitals or organizations.
Always fascinated by social sciences, CFHK accelerated Rubino’s interests in foreign services and diplomacy by helping her see the world more broadly. Rubino will continue her ever-growing charity even as she wraps up her international affairs degree—she’s slated to graduate from GW in 2025—and begins a career.
As she’s seen in the 12 years since CFHK’s founding, a venture can go imaginable places when it is fueled by the very best of human spirit coming together under a common cause.
“No act of kindness,” Rubino said, “is too small.”