By Jerry Caruso, founder of Caruso Family Charities
I was asked the other day how long I’ve been doing this charity. I was speechless as I held up both hands – ten fingers. It got me thinking not just about how we started this great journey, but more importantly, why. As a longtime family friend once told me, “Caruso Family Charities started way before you did, Jerry.”
Here’s what he meant. My parents were incredibly generous people. But even more so when you think about the post-WWII era I was born into. My dad worked as a machinist on the BNSF railroad in Denver and my mom was raising me and my brother John. They worked hard and they didn’t have much. But they volunteered their time in the community. They gave money too; my mom had a rule that anyone who came to our door looking for a handout got one. Homeless, down-on-their-luck folks came to our door almost daily. Mom would go to the store and get these tiny manila envelopes (she bought them by the box) and she would carefully fold and place a $5, a $1 and four quarters in an envelope. When someone came to the door, she would hand out this little envelope. A dollar a day, she called it. Even with inflation, how many people will give $7 to a beggar today? But she did this without fail and without a wallet that contained much more.
A longtime family friend once told me, ‘Caruso Family Charities started way before you did, Jerry.’
But my parents were fortunate in that they lived to see their children prosper. After enjoying success as a baseball player both in high school and college, fortune smiled on me as a young man. I got to marry the love of my life, Karen, and together we raised four healthy, wonderful kids of our own and now have three beautiful grandchildren. And through the years my good fortune continued with business success as well. I was blessed to not just provide for my family but to give them everything I wanted to give them. I was able to buy a big home and expensive cars, take my family on trips and pay for my kids’ education. I had made it to the top. But when I reached the summit, I discovered there was nothing there. I had everything but it felt empty somehow.
I thought about my parents’ example and decided tithing at church wasn’t enough. I wanted to give back in a meaningful way. I was inspired by my accountant friend Bob Zarlengo who had a charitable foundation. He kindly offered to help me set one up too – that part was easy. The hard part was figuring out what the mission should be.
Children are dear to our family and I wanted to do something for kids. I remembered installing some cabinetry at Children’s Hospital Colorado some years before. The project involved a play area for children with cancer while they were undergoing treatment. I wanted to help them somehow.
Through a series of phone calls and referrals, I landed at the office of Dr. Tom Smith, an oncologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. He invited me to lunch to talk more and we set a date. What I didn’t expect was to walk into a meeting with Dr. Smith and his entire staff. They said, “Here’s where we see a need…” and they proceeded to share stories of the families of the kids, struggling to get them to treatment, or in need of help with rent, food or insurance payments. The nurses had taken collections more than once – sometimes to help a family with transportation to doctor visits or to help with meals. One nurse had paid an Xcel Energy bill from her own purse to help turn the power back on for a family. I said, “I think we can help,” and Caruso Family Charities was born.
Time. Talent. Treasure.
Ten years ago I had money to give and I couldn’t wait to help families who had kids suffering with terrible diseases like cancer. Of the “Time, Talent and Treasure” calling at our church, Treasure was the only “T” I really had at that time, so Karen and I funded a formal gala and together with amazing friends and our generous community, we raised some money for the cause. Then families were sent to us from the folks at the hospital.
The unexpected part for me in all this was just how many families with sick or dying children would need our help. Their situations had taken them to the brink and many needed help immediately. So we made sure our model allowed for help to be given immediately. Over time, more and more people came to us and we had to turn some away. We needed to grow the effort beyond what we could personally fund. So we established a formal board, hired professionals to do filings and we all worked to help the charity prosper. I was also finding myself becoming emotionally involved and began spending as much time with the charity as I was at work.
The unexpected part for me in all this was just how many families with sick or dying children would need our help.
Then 2008 happened. The unthinkable recession – depression – whatever you want to call it, hit our business hard. And it didn’t let up for six long years. I had never been in a situation like it. We sold off personal assets like cars and homes to help pay salaries and bills. I’m proud to say we never filed for bankruptcy and never left anyone unpaid. But we ran out of things to sell to sustain it. Those were some of the most stressful, sleepless nights of my life. Well-meaning friends advised me to drop the charity and just focus on the business. Cut your losses, basically.
But an old-timer at church said to me, “Nah, don’t worry. God’s pruning you.”
“What?” I replied as I shook my head.
“Yep, he’s trimming you back so you can grow bigger fruit,” he replied.
I didn’t know about pruning, but what I did know was this: I could still buy food. I still had a roof over my head and my children and grandchildren were healthy. These parents were struggling with all these things and on top of it they had kids with diseases like leukemia. I was stressed but I couldn’t fathom the depth of the situation for them. Dropping Caruso Family Charities was out of the question. As for the trimming back…well, I wasn’t sure why God needed to cut so deep.
Finally in 2014 things started to recover. Business had slowly returned and fortune smiled once more. But I was changed. I could afford the cars again and the trips and the big house, but I no longer wanted them. Not that there’s anything wrong with a big house and nice cars, it’s just that my priorities had shifted. It actually feels good to downsize now, like weight being lifted. We decided how much we needed to live on each year. Anything extra goes to charity. My kids are smart and talented and hard workers. They’ll make their own way.
Here’s the thing: in those 10 years we’ve raised more than $1.2 million and helped more than 400 families who were in a really dark place and felt like they had nowhere to turn. Some faced homelessness. Many just needed the pressure of mounting bills to be lifted for awhile so they could be present with their kids.
In those 10 years we’ve raised more than $1.2 million and helped 400 families who were in a really dark place and felt like they had nowhere to turn.
These families, I’m pleased to report, were able to stay in their homes and their kids had a bed to sleep in when they came home from the hospital. The lights and heat were on during cold winters and they had a car to take their children to chemo treatments. Some, like the Ogden family, just needed to take their focus off the medical bills so they could spend quality time with their young son before he died. Clearly those parents still have stress and they still have heartache when they lose a child or watch them suffer. But for a little while, they get to share valuable, precious, priceless time with them.
This is our mission. It fills me in ways I could not have imagined during those boom years. Back then, I could empathize with hardship, but I couldn’t relate personally. The pruning changed my understanding on a real human level and I’m forever grateful for the experience. Mostly I’m grateful for you this charity. Thank you for being a part of it.