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Kari McHugh: “A hero is someone that is brave enough to support someone else in need — often putting their needs second to help another person”

A hero is someone that is brave enough to support someone else in need — often putting their needs second to help another person. As we live through this pandemic, there are many people who sacrificed their overall wellbeing to courageously place themselves on the front lines, from healthcare professionals to grocery store clerks. Without […]

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A hero is someone that is brave enough to support someone else in need — often putting their needs second to help another person. As we live through this pandemic, there are many people who sacrificed their overall wellbeing to courageously place themselves on the front lines, from healthcare professionals to grocery store clerks. Without their extraordinary efforts, the situation could have been dramatically worse.


Aspart of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic I had the pleasure of interviewing Kari McHugh. Kari has dedicated her life to helping others and the COVID-19 outbreak provided another opportunity to support those in need. At the beginning of the outbreak, she recognized that nonprofits would need extra financial support to serve their communities. She helped lead the charge for the Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation to activate emergency grants for health and hunger relief organizations working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response. Many grant checks were awarded and sent overnight to help food pantries purchase food and hire temporary staff at a time when grocery store donations and volunteer engagements had suddenly stopped. As the Executive Director of the Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation, she brings joy to kids who are battling hunger or illness, providing millions of dollars in grants to children’s hospitals, food banks and other nonprofits across the country every year. Kari is also the President of the Michael C. McHugh Memorial Foundation and the Nurses Fund.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?

Igrew up in Acton, MA with two brothers and a sister. I went to Lawrence Academy and then decided to take a leap and go to college far from home at St. Andrews University in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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

I love Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go.” I received it when I graduated from high school from a good friend of mine and have cherished it ever since, and I always in return give it to people during big life transitions. It’s a good reminder that all paths have their ups and downs.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Former Dunkin’ Brands CEO John Luther used to say, “you can always recover from the truth,” which I try to live by. Throughout my career, I’ve always taken risks, which comes with a lot of mistakes. Remembering that the best way to handle those is honestly has helped me get out of some tricky situations.

Ok, thank you for all that. 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?

When the COVID-19 outbreak began shutting things down earlier this year, we saw an immediate need for financial help, especially with hunger relief organizations across the country. Knowing the need was increasing by the hour, I helped lead the charge for the Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation to quickly activate $1.25 million in emergency grants for health and hunger relief organizations working on the frontlines of COVID-19 response. We announced this in mid-March when everything was just beginning to close down, and food banks were beginning to see a massive surge of food requests, including people who had never needed to rely on food banks before this crisis.

The Foundation worked quickly to approve requests and within the first 24 hours of the grant application being open, fifteen grants totaling $250,000 were awarded and checks were sent overnight to make an immediate impact. Just one of many examples is the Connecticut Food Bank. Before the pandemic, they already served more than 100,000 and that number rose steadily starting in March. The organization was able to use emergency funding from the Foundation to help with this growing community need. The week the grant was received, they increased their weekly distribution by 20% or 100,000 lbs. more food than a typical week.

Additionally, we introduced Hero Recharge, a first-of-its-kind program designed to help healthcare professionals experiencing traumatic stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program will offer these heroes the respite and renewal they deserve through unforgettable outdoor adventure retreats. This initiative will serve healthcare professionals serving on the frontlines of the COVID-19 outbreak’s hardest-hit locations such as New York City, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and other cities. We’re hoping to safely kickoff the retreats in August.

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

A hero is someone that is brave enough to support someone else in need — often putting their needs second to help another person. As we live through this pandemic, there are many people who sacrificed their overall wellbeing to courageously place themselves on the front lines, from healthcare professionals to grocery store clerks. Without their extraordinary efforts, the situation could have been dramatically worse.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Dedication: For those who dedicate themselves to bringing joy to others when life is difficult makes a real difference. This includes healthcare workers showing up for work, day after day. It also includes many community organizations who have no choice but to stand tall when times get tough. For example, Denver Dream Center, a nonprofit partner, stepped up to support 1,000 families in the Denver area with regular deliveries of “Hope Boxes.” These boxes include essentials like food, hygiene and cleaning products, educational supplies, children’s activities, and more, to help families in need during the crisis. They were dedicated to the people they serve, and they understood they needed more than just food, but hope.
  2. Selflessness: For everyone who is serving on the frontlines of the pandemic from healthcare professionals who take care of patients to hospital janitors that risk their lives each day to clean surfaces to ensure others are healthy and safe. These brave people not only risk their lives but take their responsibility to help others seriously.
  3. Compassion: Just like how the COVID-19 virus is contagious, so is compassion. There have been endless examples of how people of all ages continue to step forward to help someone in need — whether it’s a cheerful drawing for someone who’s sick to donating time or funds to make a positive impact. While the world is going through such challenging times, there seems to be no end to helping each other. The unwavering compassion from Dunkin’ franchisees, guests and colleagues and beyond is what makes me so hopeful for a brighter future post-COVID-19.
  4. Perseverance: I credit the countless scientists, researchers, and other professionals that are working around the clock to identify new treatments and vaccine options to help slow or eradicate the COVID-19 virus. Their tenacity to not give up under pressure to help so many is highly admirable.
  5. Problem-solving: Most people have never lived through what we’re living through. Every day brands and organizations are adapting, and small businesses are pivoting to stay afloat. We’ve been in awe of the Foundation’s non-profit partners, and how they’ve adapted to the crisis. For example, Cultivate Abundance, a grantee partner, utilized our emergency grant to help serve its community of farmworkers to help alleviate the demand of food in their area. They created and distributed container gardens via five-gallon buckets with perennial vegetables and sheet pans with leafy green to help local residents become more self-sufficient in assessing nutritious food.

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 believe that heroism comes in all sizes and capacities. I believe most people are good and want to help someone or a cause because it feels good to pay it forward and it is fulfilling to see how your action can make a difference. One of the bright sides of the pandemic is witnessing the countless acts of heroism across the country from a helpful neighbor bringing food to an at-risk person to the thousands of healthcare professionals that risk their lives to care for COVID-19 patients each day.

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?

Once the pandemic began to spread in the US, the Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation immediately began speaking with our nonprofit partners to determine their needs. It was clear that hunger relief and health nonprofits needed financial support to quickly get food, supplies and other resources to their communities. When we heard the demand was rising, we knew it was critical to act fast to do our part to help organizations keep up with growing requests. We couldn’t have a typical grants process. Therefore, we quickly approved applications to offer immediate support.

We heard from so many food pantries that getting the funds fast allowed them to keep their work running. They could immediately purchase food and hire temporary staff at a time when grocery store donations and volunteer engagements had stopped nearly overnight.

For example, when La Casa de Amistad, a community center in South Bend, Ind., heard about the Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation’s emergency grants, it applied immediately. Within 24 hours, the team had a check in hand making it possible to immediately purchase supplies and pack boxes with food and hygiene products for 128 families.

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

As the founder of modern science, Leonardo da Vinci is a hero of mine. He was focused on solving big and small problems alike and could find solutions that others couldn’t see by examining both the most minute details and the 10,000-foot view. I also love that he invented the parachute.

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

Food insecurity was a significant issue prior to the pandemic and now that unemployment is at a record high and the economy is uncertain, it has only made the problem worse. Millions of low-income children lost access to free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch when schools closed. This sobering news coupled with record-high unemployment has created long lines at food banks and pantries. For many Americans, this is the first time they must depend on hunger relief organizations to feed their family. For those managing this hunger crisis at nonprofits, they are working overtime to meet the demand. During times of crisis, we often see an event like a natural disaster, and then a certain amount of time for recovery. With this crisis, the timeline is uncertain. Right now, there is a lot of giving — but what happens next? This is something we are keeping an eye on to better understand how we can help in the next phase.

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

Although the pandemic has tested the strength of many, I believe there are better days ahead for our country and beyond. Companies, foundations, and private citizens have been generous and given millions of dollars for pandemic relief efforts. This support gives not only financial help, but it raises the spirits of our country when we needed the most. For this reason, my hope is we will learn from this difficult experience to only become a stronger and more unified society. I hope this moment in time will make people more empathic to those in need on a regular basis not just when we are in a crisis.

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

I have been continuously inspired by the kind-hearted behavior of people that choose to serve others. I have found that no good act goes unnoticed and it is needed now more than ever.

People continue to rally to help others in their own special ways. I have seen Girls Scouts make masks for grocery cashiers, people delivering meals to at-risk neighbors, and young kids drawing beautiful artwork for nurses to brighten their day after a long and stressful shift. Everyone has a special way to show kindness and this pandemic brought out the best in most people. Of course, there is always a few that take advantage of a crisis situation, but I choose to focus on the positive acts of human behavior.

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

While I wish we never had to experience a pandemic, our world has experienced a sense of community, compassion, and support which lifted our spirits and resolve during the last few months. The quarantine allowed us to pay greater attention to extraordinary moments of kindness that surround us all. More so, the good deeds of neighbors, healthcare professionals along with colleagues and Dunkin’ franchisees have made a profound impact on me and on our society. These extraordinary moments will only help sustain us in the future.

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

Our hope that our society continues to have this same level of compassion for family and strangers alike. It will take some time for our economy to recover which means there are a greater number of people that will need financial, spiritual, and mental support. More so, nonprofits need volunteers more than ever to achieve their collective missions to serve others. I hope that our younger generations emulate this increased dedication to supporting causes that are close to their hearts.

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

I would like to meet Pope Francis since he has done such an incredible job bringing people together and focusing on the Catholic Church on a humanitarian mission.

How can our readers follow you online?

Readers can follow me on LinkedIn.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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