The spirit and memory of Kristine Morello-Wiatrak continue to live on at Family Reach, and in many ways, through special people who help deliver its core mission in her honor. Family Reach Ambassador Jennifer Winterhalter and Kristine became friends in 6th grade at Valley Middle School in Oakland where they shared classes together and volunteered as scorers for the girls’ basketball team. Jennifer recalls Kristine sitting behind her in some of their classes. “I remember her pulling on my hair. She was always doing things like that – teasing and stuff. She always loved to make people laugh.” Jennifer’s friendship with Kristine grew and continued through high school, college and beyond. Then one day a few years after graduating from college, Jennifer received a phone call from Kristine while at work. Kristine called to tell Jennifer that she had just been diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a form of bone cancer. When asked about her reaction to this news, Jennifer said, “Complete shock – It (cancer) was something that I had dealt with before in my life but it was with grandparents. They were older people. I had never known anyone even close to my age where this had happened. So when I first heard, I thought, oh you will fix it and it will go away. You’re kind of in denial for a while.”
Following Kristine’s passing in 1995, Jennifer supported the fundraising efforts of the founding families to help kids with cancer. When the Colangelo/Morello-Wiatrak Cancer Fund was incorporated into Family Reach Foundation in 2003, Jennifer remained involved and continued to attend and support the NJ Golf Classic fundraiser every year. In addition, she continues to sell numerous raffle books year after year to friends and family in support of Family Reach’s Oldies Night to Remember fundraiser. When asked what sustains her in this commitment and whether it is difficult to ask people for money every year, Jennifer replied, “You know I think about that, every time I send the emails (to solicit donations) again….When I think about it, I think I’m not asking them for money for me. I’m asking them to help kids who are dealing with cancer. How can you say no to that!? And you know, I’m relentless when it comes to sending out emails. I just keep sending them and sending them.”
As much as she asks friends and family to give, Jennifer gives. At the dinner for the recent 2011 Golf Outing, Jennifer purchased numerous raffle tickets for the 50:50 and silent auction. All in attendance were moved when Jennifer, who won the 50:50 raffle, got up to claim her prize and instead donated her winnings back to Family Reach. When Jennifer handed back the prize to Chris Wiatrak who had announced her as the winner, she became tearful, as though for a moment she was remembering Kristine and what she went through and what she hoped for. Her generous giving back was surely inspired by her desire to honor Kristine and Chris Wiatrak’s wishes that family and friends extend a helping hand to children and their families coping with cancer.
In addition to her support of the NJ Golf Outing and Oldies Night fundraising events, Jennifer has been an active member of the Family Reach 5k and Family Fun Run committee since the event’s inception six years ago. The relationships she shares with committee members and the success of the event have provided fuel for Jennifer to remain involved. Said Jennifer, “I enjoy all of the people who are on the committee and you know making sure that it comes off smoothly and every year that we raise more money, it’s that much more exciting and satisfying.” While acknowledging that sustained involvement has not always been easy given the responsibilities of work and family, Jennifer explained that it has become easier as her kids have gotten older and she now involves them in helping at the 5K. Jennifer also credits her husband John for her sustained commitment. “He’s involved to the point where he supports me in whatever I want to do or need to do (for Family Reach).”
When asked if her experiences with Kristine shaped who she is today, Jennifer replied, “I’d like to think that I would be involved in something like this (supporting Family Reach) but regardless, it’s definitely motivated me to try and get out there and help people more.” In addition to her own personal involvement with helping people, Jennifer enjoys and values working for Amneal Pharmaceuticals, a company which has a philosophy of supporting and giving back to the community. In addition to matching charitable donations, Amneal Pharmaceuticals gets very involved in helping the community at a local level. “They (Amneal) are really into their communities and helping people and that’s the type of company I want to work for,” said Jennifer enthusiastically. Jennifer who is Vice President of Revenue Management for Amneal Pharmaceuticals, believes that the company’s philosophy is a reflection of Amneal’s President and Co-Founder, Chirag Patel who cares deeply about giving back and sharing with those in need. When Jennifer first told Chirag about Family Reach, he said, “Well you know, my wife and I have a goal to help one million children before we die.” This initial conversation led to Amneal’s generous financial support of the Foundation. The company was one of three major corporate sponsors of the recent 2011 NJ Golf Outing and several members of the Amneal team attended the event along with Jennifer.
Even before her good friend passed, Jennifer was already at work raising funds to help. She recalls stopping at Valley Hospital with her mother to visit Kristine and to give Kristine the money that she and her mom had raised by placing containers outside of local stores. The visit was harder than she expected. Her voice trembling with emotion, Jennifer paused and then said, “I remember visiting Kristine about two weeks before she passed. It was tough because as bad as it got, you never thought that it would actually happen and it was hard.” As difficult as it was for Jennifer to receive that phone call with the news of Kristine’s cancer diagnosis, it was even harder for her to come to terms with Kristine’s impending death. Now almost 16 years later, Jennifer’s memories of Kristine and their friendship live on in her heart and continue to inspire her to help families struggling with the overwhelming challenges of cancer.