The five sweatshirt-clad siblings huddled around a conference room table at Children’s Wisconsin on a Saturday in January. They had an important decision to make: How were they going to invest their family’s donation?
They had just had a heartstring-tugging tour of the Herma Heart Institute and the Intensive Care Unit and heard from Children’s Wisconsin staff about the organization’s biggest priorities. They felt a personal connection to cancer care after losing loved ones and seeing others suffer from this disease. But they were also intrigued by several new initiatives around mental and behavioral health. As parents Becky and Jerry Jendusa watched, the kids in their blended family — Nathan (21), Josh (20), Abbi (17), Joe (17) and Ava (14) — debated and ranked their preferences on a white board.
After the scores were totaled, the kids learned the value of their family’s transformational gift: $1 million for mental and behavioral health initiatives over a five-year period, plus $50,000 for pediatric cancer research through the MACC Fund Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s Wisconsin.
“It was a way for us as a family to think about something that’s greater than ourselves,” said Nathan, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s something my dad has always preached to us ever since we were little: to give back. He’s really tried to instill those values in us.”
“We’re very blessed to be in a situation where we can give,” added Jerry. “It’s one thing to give money, and it’s another to see how it’s going to be used. It’s the start of something that we plan on growing and developing and making a part of our family’s mission.”
Jerry’s connection to Children’s Wisconsin began years earlier, when a couple of his employees at EMTEQ urged the company to have a golf outing. Jerry would only agree if the event was in support of a cause, and they settled on supporting the Children’s Wisconsin Child Advocacy and Protection Services program. The event turned into an annual giving plan culminated by a golf event, dinner and live auction. Over the next decade, the company raised over $750,000 for Children’s Wisconsin. And when Jerry’s kids were old enough, they came along to the golf tournaments.
“I’ve tried to instill the concept of ‘work, earn, give’ in my kids from very young ages,” said Jerry, who grew EMTEQ into an international player in the aerospace industry before he sold the company in 2014 and launched his own consulting business. “You have to make sacrifices when you’re running a business and working all the time, and I tried to show the kids that I was working to provide a living for my family and also trying to make the world a better place at the same time. I was purposeful of reminding them what the goals were.”
After Becky and Jerry got married in 2018, they talked about the causes they wanted to support as a couple, and Children’s Wisconsin again rose to the top of the list. “Giving back to kids was really important to us,” said Becky.
But so was giving with their own kids. They hoped that empowering their kids to make philanthropic decisions would not only turn them into lifelong givers, but also bring together Jerry’s three sons and Becky’s two daughters from a previous marriage.
“We decided that we wanted to give more meaningfully so we’re not just a family that writes a check,” Becky said. “We decided the best way to do that was to get them all together once a year and decide where they want the money to go.”
So the family met at Jerry’s office around Christmastime in 2018 and interviewed a few charitable organizations, including the Children’s Wisconsin Foundation. The kids, initially a little surprised to be charged with the decision-making, elected to support Children’s Wisconsin, splitting that year’s gift between the MACC Fund Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders and mental and behavioral health.
The next holiday season, the kids were eager to return to the table, this time going to Children’s Wisconsin to tour and talk to staff more in depth about their giving options. Then Josh took charge at the white board to rank his siblings’ preferences. “That’s just who I am,” he said. “There are a lot of things I’m passionate about, and health is one of them.”
Josh has experienced firsthand the power of specialized pediatric health care. As a second grader, he fractured his femur during a backyard football game, leading to surgery at Children’s Wisconsin and rods that remained in his leg for two years. Then during his freshman year of high school, he broke three vertebrae in a diving accident and had to wear a neck brace for about six months, followed by months of physical therapy.
“Obviously there were some tough moments, but Children’s Wisconsin really helped,” said Josh, who is now a sophomore at Marquette University. “Children’s Wisconsin has always been a special place.”
But first they had to decide: What exactly did they want to support? The boys lost a family friend to cancer a number of years ago, while the girls lost a grandfather to cancer, so supporting that area was an easy decision.
“I was most excited about the cancer research because this gives other people an opportunity to fight cancer,” Nathan said. “I was also a strong advocate for mental health because having a healthy mind is just as important as having a healthy body.”
Abbi, a junior at Mukwonago High School, also pushed for the family to focus on mental health. “Being a teenager, I see it all around me,” she said. “We all see that it’s a huge problem that’s definitely growing.”
Josh has experienced anxiety himself and knows he’s not alone. “I have a lot of friends who struggle with anxiety and depression, and with this whole COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a bigger thing than people think,” he said.
The kids debated about whether they should support counseling in schools or other aspects of the hospital’s mental and behavioral health strategy. After some spirited discussion, they agreed to support urgent/emergency care and inpatient care for kids and adolescents struggling with critical mental health issues and universal screening across the Children’s Wisconsin system to catch mental and behavioral health problems early, before they escalate.
“One of the bigger surprises has been the kids’ curiosity and passion and input regarding mental health for kids,” Jerry said. “They’d be pretty insightful about the strategies that they thought would be most effective with teens.”
For Becky and Jerry, it was gratifying to sit back and simply listen to the kids make their decisions. “They’re really good decision-makers,” Becky said. “It’s actually kind of fun to watch and to see where their minds go and what’s important to them. When we talk about it later in the year, it’s clear that it resonates with them.”
The Jendusa siblings said they hope their example inspires other young people to get involved with philanthropy. Abbi’s advice: “Definitely have a wide variety of options to look at and be really open to all the different options because we saw a lot of different things that we never would have even considered.”
And the kids and parents both agree that the process has been a bonding experience.
“It has brought us closer, 100 percent,” Josh said. “Learning more about each other’s passions and fears and what they think about donating to really has helped us learn a lot about each other.”
“Every year I look forward to that family discussion because it makes me feel good to give back,” said Nathan. “It helps to make a world a better place for everyone, and it’s something I will continue to do for the rest of my life.”