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Transforming Loss Into Tzedakah

November 19, 2013 By:
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Spring of junior year is a high school student’s dreamtime. Prom and summer vacation are around the corner. Magical, mythical senior year lies right ahead. What happens after that — and after that, and after that — seems far away. 

Senior year is the time for new freedoms and adventures, and making decisions about a future that seems endless and full of promise. So universal are these reveries that it’s fair to assume that on Friday, May 11, 2007 at 2:43 p.m. — 11 minutes after class was dismissed for the weekend — 17-year-old Haley Jennifer Yarmark was thinking similar things as she walked home along Church Hill Road in Kintnersville, Pa. At 2:44 p.m., Yarmark was hit by a car and killed. 

“Everything happens for a reason” is not a maxim uttered by people whose loved ones have suffered fatal illnesses or accidents. There do seem to be a lot of “How?” questions. Like: How did the accident happen? 

In Yarmark’s case, the driver of the car was a fellow classmate at Palisades High School, another 17-year-old kid, The Morning Call reported. The driver was not drunk or high; he was speeding down the road, having fun with his friends. It was that tragically simple. 

In the case of illness, “how” questions generally include: How was the disease contracted? How fast will it spread? How can it be treated? Those are questions that Ellyn Golder Saft knows only too well. Her mother, Cis Golder, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988. There was no history of breast cancer in Golder’s family; the lump was found during a routine mammogram. 

“I remember asking a lot of questions and wanting all of the information that was available,” Golder Saft says. “I think a lot of us do that — try to gather and process the facts. Your world has just been turned upside down and you try to make sense of it. You want to feel in control of an out-of-control situation. You want to know what is going to happen next, because this has come as such a shock. You want to prepare yourself and the person you love.” 

Golder Saft, her mother and father, Robert, and their family were told exactly what the treatment would be. Golder had a lumpectomy and received radiation. And then, Golder Saft says, she was fine — the treatment worked and Golder was cancer-free. “Life went on,” Golder Saft says. “My mother was the same happy, wonderful Cis Golder that she always was. We thought it was a blip on the screen, that the worst was over.”

It wasn’t. In 1995, seven years after her first diagnosis, Golder had a reoccurrence of breast cancer. While obviously unfortunate, Golder Saft says that her mother treated the news with matter-of-fact resolve. “‘How do I get rid of it this time?’ is what she wanted to know,” Golder Saft says. There was no question that Golder would beat breast cancer again, and she did. A mastectomy left her with a clean bill of health and, Golder Saft says, a sense that with the breast gone, so was the cancer. 

But it wasn’t. In 2001, Golder was diagnosed with breast cancer for the third time. From the way that Golder Saft describes her mother, it is clear that Golder was a woman of limitless energy, a sheer force of nature whose inner power only multiplied under pressure. But her cancer shared those characteristics. 

Golder received treatment that included chemotherapy, but the cancer spread through her body. Still, Golder had beaten cancer twice, so there was reason to hope that she would do so again. “Plus, she was Cis Golder,” Golder Saft says, “and no one and nothing was going to tell her to stop fighting, and she never, ever did.”

But Golder’s spirit couldn’t overcome the betrayal of her body. She died on May 25, 2006 — her 54th wedding anniversary. Although Golder Saft allows that the last six months of her mother’s life were “very difficult,” that’s all she wants to say about that time. 

Marilyn Yarmark doesn’t want to talk about her loved one’s death, either. She uses almost the same words as Golder Saft when she describes the days and months after Haley’s death. “Very shocking,” Yarmark says, “and incredibly difficult.”

Yarmark says that she did not feel anger towards the teenager who drove the car that killed her granddaughter. He pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter, reckless driving and other offenses. According to The Morning Call, his sentence included probation, surrendering his driver’s license, serving time in the Bucks County juvenile detention center, 200 hours of community service and attending rehabilitative programs. “He was being reckless, but he did not kill her on purpose,” Yarmark says. “He was a teenager, too, a very young person who made a terrible mistake. No, I did not have anger towards him.”

Nor did Yarmark rage against God, asking why her granddaughter was taken at such a young age. Similarly, Golder Saft says that she didn’t waste energy wondering why her mother had to suffer. Was there a plan? Did God have reasons? Was it bad luck, bad fate or bad biology? “What would be the point in asking why?” Golder Saft asks rhetorically. “Was God going to give me an answer? Of course not.” 

So when all of the hows are answered, the whys disregarded and the ifs exhausted, Yarmark and Golder Saft each moved on to the whats — as in “What now?” In both cases, the answer was the same: tzedakah. Yarmark established the Haley Jennifer Yarmark Memorial Fund, which is administered through Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. In conjunction with Living Beyond Breast Cancer (LBBC), Golder Saft and her father created the Cis B. Golder Quality Of Life Grant. 

Of course it’s a noble thing to do, and there is a vast amount of need in the world. But why does giving money to strangers help those who have lost loved ones? What is it about establishing a fund that helps with the grieving and healing process? 

“I’m not a social worker, but I think there is a feeling that at least they are making something good out of something terrible,” says Rachel Gross, Federation’s director of planned giving and endowments. “There is also a sense of control, in the sense that this is something real and tangible that people can do, when there is so much that can’t be controlled about illness, accidents and death. And I also think that it comes from a place of wanting to help other people and ease their suffering.”

This is most definitely the case with the Golder Grant. Women living with breast cancer receive up to $1,000 to help pay for medical expenses, child care, rent or mortgage, utilities and other necessities. Since the grant was established in 2008, more than $1 million has been distributed to women in the Delaware Valley, with Golder Saft and her father raising the funds. 

Ask Golder Saft how she learned to fundraise and she answers that her parents taught her well. An only child, Golder Saft says that she was “a Federation baby” and her parents’ “other child” was Federation itself. Both Cis and Robert Golder raised millions of dollars to support the Federation’s work. More than that, Golder Saft says that her mother raised awareness about those in need. “When she was sick and in pain, her heart still turned to other people’s suffering,” Golder Saft says. “She said to us, ‘I am lucky to be able to lie here in a nice bed and not have to worry about going to work or paying my bills. But what about the women who can’t afford to do that? What do they do?’ ”

So when memorial donations for Golder poured into LBBC after her death, Golder Saft and her father knew exactly what to do with them. They worked with LBBC to format the provisions of the Golder Grant. 

Here’s how it works: Doctors, nurses and social workers nominate women in need. No proof of financial distress is required; the health care professionals act as guarantors. The Golder Grant committee reviews the requests once a month and provides money immediately. It also asks supermarkets for gift cards and utility companies to provide in-kind gifts. So enormous is the Golder Grant’s impact that the Bringing Hope Home Foundation decided to match every $1,000 raised and let Golder Saft and Golder distribute the funds at their discretion. 

In recognition of the work that Golder Saft and Golder have done, LBBC awarded them its highest honor, The Founders Award, at the organization’s Butterfly Ball in October 2013. While deeply moved, Golder Saft said that something more important happened that night: They raised $100,000 to fund future Golder Grants. 

The Haley Jennifer Yarmark Memorial Fund is a financially smaller but no less significant way of remembering Yarmark’s granddaughter. The money is gifted to five different charities, each of which reflects the 17-year old’s varied interests. “We give money to the Settlement Music School because Haley loved music,” her grandmother explains. “The other charities have to do with social justice or women, children and families who are in need, because those are things that Haley was passionate about. I also sometimes give a donation to a family that has suffered a sudden loss, like we did with Haley. I know that pain. And I think Haley would want me to help people through it.” 

Melissa Jacobs is the chief tzedakah correspondent for Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.

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