Foster every connection ⎯ every person you meet can help your nonprofit organization. Be nice to everyone and treat everyone with respect. Reputations are not built overnight, but they can be torn down in a day.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicholas Kristock.
Nick founded Fleece & Thank You before he turned 30. This nonprofit organization provides comfort and hope for children who are facing longer stays in the hospital by giving them a hand-made fleece blanket, along with an inspiring video message from the blanket maker. Nick’s desire to comfort these kids started in 2015, when he was 25 and had just moved to Australia to pursue a career in soccer. When he wasn’t playing, he was using his free time volunteering for charities supporting kids in the hospital. There he met Sophie, a 4-year-old girl who was battling neuroblastoma. At a time in her life when she should be playing outside and meeting new friends, Sophie was taking trips to the hospital to battle one of the toughest forms of childhood cancer. As he traveled back home to Michigan, he received a text message from his twin sister, a pediatric oncology nurse, asking if he could help make blankets for children in the hospital and how blankets can drastically change the mood of these children. That is when he realized that a warm, colorful blanket could serve as a beacon of hope for kids like Sophie who spend their days in an otherwise cold and bland hospital room. The organization’s goal is to make 30,000 blankets each year because that is on average how many kids in Michigan face extended hospital stays each year. He is able to meet those goals by holding community-wide blanket making events and influencing companies to hold their own events across the country.
Thank you for joining us Nick. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
Igrew up in metro Detroit in a middle-class family. My parents worked extremely hard and sacrificed so that I could receive a quality education and have access to a variety of opportunities, such as good schooling and participation in sports. The broad spectrum of opportunities helped shape my open-minded view of the world. And that, ultimately, helped me move overseas where I found my passion of working in the nonprofit space.
You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
There are so many amazing organizations, hospitals, doctors, nurses, and other medical staff that are helping and healing the physical ailments and illnesses of children around the world. But many of our physical battles also have a mental component. From working with kids in the hospital for several years, I knew there was more work we could do on the mental, psychosocial side of a child’s treatment journey. We believe in the healing power of connection, and every blanket we provide also has a personal video message attached to it from the blanket maker to the recipient in the hospital, who can then send a “thank-you” message back to the maker.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
In early 2015, I moved 10,000 miles away to Australia to pursue a career in soccer. While living there, I used my free time to volunteer for charities supporting hospitalized children. I was fortunate to meet amazing kids like Sophie (pictured right), who was 4 years old and battling neuroblastoma. At a time in her life when she should be playing with dolls and meeting new friends, Sophie was taking trips to the hospital to battle one of the toughest forms of childhood cancer.
This meant many rounds of difficult chemotherapy treatments involving multiple overnight stays in the hospital, yet she always had a beaming smile on her face when I saw her. I was working daily with kids like Sophie going through hospital treatments, and like anything you invest your time in, the inspiration to help grew heavy on my heart.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
As I was traveling home to Michigan in late 2015, I landed in California and received a text message from my twin sister, a pediatric oncology nurse at Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She said, “When you have some free time, you should make a blanket for a kid in the hospital.” Being an aggressively curious person, I asked more questions: “How many blankets do you need? How often do you need them?”
Her answers back to me were: “We ALWAYS need blankets. They dramatically change the hospital environment. We NEVER have enough.” I was scratching my head in confusion that one of the best children’s hospitals in the country didn’t have enough of something they needed. I called every other unit at her hospital, and I got the same answers. I then called every hospital in Michigan that served kids under age 18, and I found the SAME answers.
This is where the idea for Fleece & Thank You began.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
I love this question, so much so that I actually give a presentation at conferences about this exact topic. My favorite presentation I give, How to Build a Business to Solve a Problem, outlines the 10 steps I advocate to anyone starting a social impact business. To give you a teaser, the first step is “Live the Problem.” I believe that a critical step to solving a problem is to experience the problem firsthand, to really “feel” the problem face-to-face. Once you have truly felt the problem, you will have more creativity and determination to solve it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
We have had some amazing volunteers support our organization, and one of my favorite stories involves two volunteers, one named Ame and the other named Mary Beth.
Ame is a cancer survivor who learned about F&TY back when we did one of our FIRST events ever in 2015. We were at Oakland University for Make a Difference Day, and Ame walked into the room to help make blankets. Ame has been volunteering since 2015 when her schedule permits, and she always mentions how much it meant to her to give back to kids who were sick and lonely, especially because she experienced the same things.
Mary Beth is also a cancer survivor, and in 2016, she was looking for somewhere to volunteer her time. She went to a volunteer fair at Novi Library, and while there, she met a lady who mentioned Fleece & Thank You to her. Mary Beth messaged us on Facebook, and soon she was at her first volunteer shift. One shift led to two in a row, two led to four, and before we knew it, Mary Beth was a staple in our warehouse and operation. Mary Beth had never been able to track down the woman who told her about the charity that has now become such a massive part of her life. We have always joked with Mary Beth that she must have met an angel at the library that day.
Both of these stories are important for a reason. Two different people both found purpose in an organization, and their lives are changed because of it. The best part is that in 2017 while Mary Beth was helping in the warehouse, Ame walked into the room. Mary Beth’s face looked as if she had seen a ghost, and it all made sense when she exclaimed, “Oh my goodness, YOU are the angel from the library who told me about Fleece & Thank You!” Ame and Mary Beth are core components of our volunteer force and are good friends today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
When I first delivered blankets to Mott Children’s Hospital, I brought them in a black garbage bag. Try walking into a children’s hospital carrying large black garbage bags…not gonna happen! Even though it was embarrassing, I took the “whoops” moment and kept moving forward, only this time with CLEAR garbage bags that showed the blankets we were delivering.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I have had countless mentors who have given me guidance, advice, caution, and confidence along my journey. I would not be where I am without the counsel and advice of people much smarter and more experienced than I. One mentor is the executive director of a nonprofit in Chicago. When I first began F&TY and times were tough, he said something to me on a call that has stuck with me. He told me to grab a pen and write down the phrase “ERASE ALL DOUBT” in capital letters. He told me that I needed to fully believe I would build what I wanted to build and not let the smallest seed of doubt get in my way.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
We had a blanket recipient named Hannah who, after receiving her blanket, wanted to give back the same comfort to kids in the hospital. After holding several blanket-making events with friends and family, she then organized a community-wide blanket event that is now an annual event and has produced more than 1,000 blankets to date!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
The biggest help our community can have, aside from helping us create blankets, is to educate and share awareness about the psychosocial effects of hospital treatments for youth and to promote appropriate support from the friends and the networks of kids who are hospitalized.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Keep track of donor data from day one ⎯ telling the story of your early donors will be something you wish you could do later on down the line, and keeping a simple Excel file of your first-ever donor and beyond will be extremely helpful.
- Leading people will be the hardest thing you ever do ⎯ being a leader on a team takes every last ounce of your time and effort, but it is a worthy endeavor.
- Build a board of big hearts, not big names ⎯ you will need to lean on a board of directors early on to help with heavy lifting. Save yourself time and bring on board the people who are sold on the mission.
- Foster every connection ⎯ every person you meet can help your nonprofit organization. Be nice to everyone and treat everyone with respect. Reputations are not built overnight, but they can be torn down in a day.
- Celebrate more ⎯ in the rush of starting a nonprofit organization or any business, so much “work” needs to be done, and we often forget to celebrate the successes because our mind is on the next battle. You don’t have to always be in battle mode, and there is a TON to learn from celebrating the wins along the way.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
As far as we know, we get one ticket to ride this train of life. We get one shot to make our life really count. When you talk to the elderly and ask them about their journey, they often tell us they wish they had found their purpose sooner or had made more of an impact. Take it from someone who has played the game, your wealth is measured by much larger things than your bank account when the train ride is over.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would like to have lunch with Scott Harrison (I am buying, Scott), founder of charity: water. I promise that if you put us into the same room, you will start a tsunami of social good that will overwhelm the world with positive impact. Consider yourself warned. :]
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can follow me online through our website at www.fleeceandthankyou.org, @fleeceandthankyou on most social media channels, as well as the Fleece & Thank You podcast called “Part of Our Fabric,” available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher and several other podcast applications.