Karen Torres: ” Empathy and compassion for others”

…Of course I have hope. We are capable of such amazing advances in science and treatment in relatively short periods of time. With so many brilliant scientific minds working tirelessly to find cures or vaccines, I believe that we will be able to find a way to defeat or better control this virus as well […]

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…Of course I have hope. We are capable of such amazing advances in science and treatment in relatively short periods of time. With so many brilliant scientific minds working tirelessly to find cures or vaccines, I believe that we will be able to find a way to defeat or better control this virus as well as the new ones to come.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Torres.

Karen Torres joined Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Washington DC (RMHCDC) in April 2012 as president and CEO. Hired as a change agent, the chapter has experienced significant growth under her leadership. Furthering the charity’s mission to improve the health and well-being of children, through its three core programs of Ronald McDonald Houses, Ronald McDonald Family Rooms, and Ronald McDonald Care Mobiles, RMHCDC serves close to 11,000 individual children and their families annually.

During Karen’s tenure, RMHCDC recognition has included 3- and 4-star ratings from Charity Navigator, Platinum level ratings from GuideStar, One of the Best Small Charities from Catalogue for Philanthropy, BBB accreditation, and Best Charity in Washington DC by Karen has been recognized in numerous local, regional, and national publications, and won multiple awards recognizing accomplished, high-impact female business leaders, and for her work improving lives in the community.

Prior to joining RMHCDC, Karen worked in both private and public sectors in marketing, media and public relations.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Karen! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

Thanks for your interest! I was lifted in Richmond, Virginia, one of four daughters. My father was an orthopedic surgeon and my mother trained as a nurse. My parents were also very involved in the community and modeled the value of helping others. This message obviously resonated, because all three of my sisters are in medical or health fields, as is my own daughter. I believe this is why I was so drawn to the mission of Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Is there a particular book that has made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Since a small child, I have always been a voracious reader, so I can’t think of one particular book. But early on, I became fascinated by stories about other cultures and the lives of people in different circumstances from all parts of the world. This intellectual curiosity remained and inspired a life-long passion for travel.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Two similar quotes sum up my general approach to life and work. The first is by Leonardo da Vinci: Being willing is not enough. We must do.” The second is by Abraham Maslow: “In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or step back into safety.”

I have always believed that to accomplish a goal or to make a situation better, one has to first make the decision to move forward or change, then actively take steps to try to make it happen. The idea of just passively wishing things would be different or hoping a problem would solve itself is untenable to me. I need to tackle things head-on and act, even if only in incremental steps, to improve or obtain the outcome I want. Now having said that, I am well aware that factors not of my own making have fostered this philosophy: I have been incredibly fortunate in the life lottery, and I am naturally an optimist who embraces change because I always trust that things can get better. This way of thinking has propelled me forward in my life and career choices.

Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

The mission of Ronald McDonald House Charities® of Greater Washington, DC (RMHCDC) is to ease the hardship of children’s illness on families through programs that directly improve the health and well-being of children. We help families struggling with problems like how to stay near and support a hospitalized child, how to afford staying together in another city while a child is undergoing treatment, or even how to get basic medical care in a vulnerable community.

During this pandemic, we had to look for creative ways to still support these children and families while keeping them, our teams, and the community at large as safe and as healthy as possible. One example of those creative measures is the re-purposing of our Ronald McDonald Care Mobiles, in partnership with MedStar Georgetown University Hospital Division of Pediatrics.

Delivered on our 40-ft. mobile medical clinics, the Georgetown pediatric team normally provides comprehensive integrated medical services, four days a week, at five designated sites in underserved areas of Washington, DC. These sites are located near public housing communities where over 2,000 children reside. Studies show that social determinants of health have a pervasive effect on health risks and outcomes for vulnerable populations.

Unable to treat children on the mobile units for safety concerns, the pediatric team proactively connected with the highest-risk children through treatment services, and referred infants and children needing vaccines to the hospital’s clinic. But the team quickly recognized the disproportionate impact of this pandemic on these families’ ability to access food and basic supplies. Additionally, they had heightened social, educational and mental health needs. In response, the team adjusted and urgently redirected significant effort and resources to identifying and meeting those needs. The Care Mobile is now delivering food, medication, medical supplies, and basic items such as bassinets to our most vulnerable, marginalized families: 1,600 meals per week and over 100 care packages.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

I think a hero is someone who puts aside his/her self-interest and does the right thing for the greater good despite personal risk or sacrifice.

In your opinion or experience, what are five characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Selflessness: a true hero does something extraordinary for the benefit of others and not for themselves.

2. Integrity: a hero has a strong moral compass that compels him/her to act.

3. Empathy and compassion for others: a hero’s compassion for others overcomes his/her instinctual drive for self-preservation.

4. Courage: a hero is aware of the danger to him or herself and acts anyway.

5. Self-sacrificing: a hero is willing to pay a personal price and takes risks for the benefit of others.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

I think heroes are by definition, not ordinary people at all, but rather people with extraordinary personal traits. It is these ingrained character traits that compel these people to perform heroically.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

Given my definition of heroism, I really would not define our organization or our actions as heroic. We have an important mission, and so many vulnerable children and families depend on us every day to move forward with that. We just needed to find a way to continue that help, and the pediatric team found that path.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

I admire many people and professions who choose to help others. But to me, heroes are those who knowingly and willingly risk their own personal safety, such as health care workers who continue to care for infected patients, or fire fighters and police officers who run into burning buildings or other dangerous conditions to rescue others.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

The most frightening aspect of this pandemic to me is the terrible cost of suffering and lives lost. That loss is compounded by the inability of grieving families to gather and mourn together.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

I mentioned that I am an optimist, so of course I have hope. We are capable of such amazing advances in science and treatment in relatively short periods of time. With so many brilliant scientific minds working tirelessly to find cures or vaccines, I believe that we will be able to find a way to defeat or better control this virus as well as the new ones to come.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

It is always inspiring when people place more importance on the greater good, and always very disappointing when people place more importance on their own self-interest.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

No, this pandemic has not changed my assessment of society. I think there will always be a continuum of human behavior, whether in a crisis or not. People are people: there are those who are selfless and other-centered, and on the other end, those who are selfish and self-centered.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

History has proven over and over again that there will be emergent viral strains. I hope that the global community will be better aligned and not as unprepared for possible future pandemics.

If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

There is a tremendous sense of gratification in making a positive difference in the world, no matter the scale. Acting for the good of others truly engenders feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

Along the lines of the quote from Aristotle, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” I believe if most people took concrete action to make even a small positive difference in the world, the synergy created would make the good exponentially greater.

Is there a person in the US, or even the world, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch? Why that person? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

I think Dr. Deborah Birx is a fascinating and important figure during this time. It would be interesting to learn why she chose her particular path of joining the Army and specializing in the field of immunology.

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