Passionistas Persist Visionary Award Recipient Carolyn Koppel
Carolyn Koppel is the 2022 Recipient of the Passionistas Persist Visionary Award and the founder of Aaron’s Coffee Corner. She started her amazing organization after spending many long nights in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) with her son, Aaron. Now, Aaron’s Coffee Corner provides 24/7 access to free, fresh, quality coffee in the family great rooms of hospital PICUs. It is Carolyn’s mission to provide the smallest of comforts to the family, friends and caregivers of critically ill children by providing something familiar in an unfamiliar place.
Hear her full episode here.
IN THIS EPISODE [00:02] Carolyn Koppel accepts the Passionistas Persist Icon Award [00:03] On what she’s most passionate about [00:04] On her son, Aaron [00:06] On Aaron’s Coffee Corner’s mission [00:07] On why she decided to create an organization that focuses on the families [00:10] On the process of creating a 501(c)(3) [00:11] On a time in her life when she persisted and how she got through it [00:14] On her dream for Aaron’s Coffee Corner [00:17] On how the Passionistas community support Aaron’s Coffee Corner [00:20] On what “Power of Passionistas” means to her
Passionistas: Hi, we’re sisters, Amy and Nancy Harrington, the founders of The Passionistas Project. We started The Passionistas Project to tell the stories of women who are following their passions and fighting for equality for all. The more we spoke with women for our podcast, subscription box and the Women’s Equality Summit, the more we saw a common trait in all of them — they are unstoppable.
Whether they choose to use their voices to start a women-owned brand or fight for the rights of the marginalized, we found that all Passionistas are resilient, compassionate and PERSISTENT.
Each year we honor women who embody these qualities by presenting the Passionistas Persist Awards. This episode of the podcast is an interview with one of the 2022 recipients.
For our next award, we asked the Passionistas community to vote daily for the woman-founded or woman-centric non-profit they wanted to see honored with the Passionistas Persist Visionary Award. The nominees were 2Live2Cure, Aaron’s Coffee Corner, Bâtonnage Women in Wine, Be Humanitarian, Home of Champions, Mary Rose Foundation, Miry’s List, Paint the World and Project U First. Our community cast the most votes for Carolyn Koppel, the founder of Aaron’s Coffee Corner. She started her amazing organization after spending many long nights in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) with her son, Aaron. Now, Aaron’s Coffee Corner provides 24/7 access to free, fresh, quality coffee in the family great rooms of hospital PICUs. It is Carolyn’s mission to provide the smallest of comforts to the family, friends and caregivers of critically ill children by providing something familiar in an unfamiliar place. So it was our honor to present the Passionistas Persist Visionary Award to Carolyn Koppel. Carolyn: It’s an honor to receive The Passionistas Persist Visionary Award for our efforts in providing direct support to people that often get overlooked in the medical jungle we call healthcare. Parents are a crucial part of the puzzle, and Aaron’s Coffee Corner wants them to know that we see them.
Providing a daily dose of comfort in the form of coffee and tea is the least we can do to acknowledge their courage, their grit, and determination while they care for their children in a uniquely stressful situation. Aaron’s Coffee Corner is thrilled to accept this award on behalf of all of our persistent supporters who voted and acknowledged the work that parents, families, and caregivers and guardians do for their critically ill children, not only when they are in the hospital, but what they do for them every day. We would never have been able to make the progress we have made without the help of Keurig, Dr. Pepper, The Anne and Robert Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, and all of our supporters, family and friends who voted. They voted with their daily wordle or with their morning coffee or they stopped me on the street while I was walking my dog to tell me they were voting every day.
And it was just such an honor to know that people were out there listening and supporting us and we had no idea. It's just an honor to receive this award. It's our first. We hope we set an example that will allow it to be the first of many. We are so proud of the organization because Aaron is a part of it and we are all in the now and people can see where the idea was born. And we just thank you for acknowledging us. It's really, really lovely.
Passionistas: Tell us what you're most passionate about.
Carolyn: My passions have changed over the years and right now the thing that is most important to me is helping other people. So as we have worked on our project, I see the impact that we have made and it creates a greater passion for me to continue what we're doing. So I think Aaron's Coffee Corner and my son Aaron are my drivers and they're my passion at the moment along with the rest of my family.
Passionistas: Tell everybody a little bit about Aaron.
Carolyn: Aaron is 17 years old. We started Aaron’s Coffee Corner when he was 13. He is nonverbal and non-ambulatory. He has an underlying disorder called Dihydropyrimidine Dehydrogenase Deficiency.
Right now, he's the only living survivor of this disorder at this age, so we're very lucky to have him. And we've had great help along the way. Aaron is a critically ill child all the time. He is chronically ill, he suffers from epilepsy, but he's all those things that he can't do. One of the things he can do is he can light up a room with his smile. He's super handsome. He's engaged with the world around him and we are proud of all the things that he has done in these 17 years. And what he has given us has really created an outlook of appreciation. It's kind of cliche, but you really do appreciate every day he wakes up. So it's just one of those… he's just really the light in our lives in so many ways, in so many other people's life as well.
And we're lucky that we started the organization with him as a living legacy instead of [that's my dog.]. instead of memorializing him when he's gone, which is always difficult. And it's best for Aaron to be able to show other people what it's like to be in this life and how he does that is just being a part of the community and people saying, “Oh, Aaron’s Coffee Corner. There's actually Aaron behind the Coffee Corner. Who is Aaron?” And they get to see him instead of just hear about him, right? We were just at our local farmer's market and Aaron was there and everybody's like, “Oh, this is Aaron.” So that kind of personal connection that he brings to our organization is really remarkable. And I think that our supporters really appreciate the fact that they can learn more about Aaron as they support our organization.
Passionistas: Tell us more about Aaron’s Coffee Corner’s mission.
Carolyn: Aaron's Coffee Corner provides a safe place for people to go and get direct support by getting a cup of coffee or a cup of tea in the family in the great rooms at Lurie Children's Hospital’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and their Neonatal Intensive Care Unit now.
So we've created a space where they can go grab a cup of coffee or tea and really just take a moment to get out of their room with their sick child and refresh and just clear their mind for a minute. So what we try and do is create an environment where people feel they can take a moment for themselves and really stay present for their child while they're in the hospital.
Passionistas: So many charities focus on the patients. Why did you decide to create an organization that really focuses more on the families?
Carolyn: Because I am the family. It was a selfish thing to do, right? It was all about me one night late in a room by myself, and I needed coffee. So I think that it makes it even more important because it's part of my community and I realize that these people need coffee like I need coffee in the middle of the night or whenever I'm admitted into a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit because my son is sick. So I think that it was just circumstance that brought me to the place where I could think, providing something that I know others would really appreciate. And that took me a long time to do.
I mean, Aaron is 17 and the first few years are hard. It's hard to have a critically ill child that you're caring for 24/7. I had a lot of help and I'm very lucky about that. But there's a lot of mourning, of loss, of all the things that you're not going to have with your child. And that takes a long time to kind of work through. And it's been 14 years past his prognosis. He wasn't supposed to live past the age of three. So when we look around at ourselves, we're very lucky. Aaron is pretty healthy. And I think that is what triggered me thinking, “Oh, maybe we can do something for others who are in the same situation because we've been there.”
We know what the situation is and how we can help them. And I knew from personal experience that coffee was something that was missing to help those families. Because if you help the family recover, the child's going to recover, right? If the people that are caring for the child are tired and disillusioned and disappointed and upset, those kinds of things can be managed a little bit by having a little time to themselves to restore their own being, their self-worth, how to get back in the game and walk back into that room and really stand up for their child and help their child get better.
Passionistas: Tell us about the process of creating a 501(c)(3).
Carolyn: It's a bit of a tedious process. And I suggest that you get a lot of help trying to figure it out because it will make it so much faster. Because me, I like to do a little research before I start asking people that know what they're talking about. And I found that the research was really overwhelming. And so I try and reach out to the people that know Aaron that can help us support Aaron in any way they can. So I talked to our family lawyer who was familiar with Aaron. And I said, “Have you ever started a 501(c)(3) for anybody?” And he was like, “Yeah, I just did one for my wife. So let's see what we can do.”
So here are the things that I find important. One, read all the information because there are shortcuts that you can take if you do it the right way and you follow through on all of your tasks — because there's a lot of tasks — especially with the state, that you have to just kind of tick off. And I know from experience that I may have forgotten one thing and it got me into a little bit of trouble. So it's important to really just kind of find out what you need to do and make a list and just continue to check that list as you go through. And then once you’re in it, it's really pretty simple to manage it in a way that you just have to send something in every year. So if you want to try it and you've got a good reason to do it, I suggest you try. It does a lot of good for people.
Passionistas: Tell us about a time in your life that you persisted and how you got through it.
Carolyn: Trying to get Aaron’s Coffee Corner off the ground is my key persistent moment. It took close to a year for things to kind of get everybody in line and on the same page. And to just to say yes to helping these parents in the pediatric intensive care. You'd think that there was already coffee there. And what they used to have was like a bun burner, like a bun stove with a glass coffee pot. And it was always dirty. And I'm like, “No, we can make that better for you.”
And you'd think they'd say, “Oh, that would be great.” But there are a lot of ins and outs in politics and bureaucracy when it comes to a major hospital. And we're lucky enough that we were able to work it out so we could at least start a pilot project. And I knew once we got in, it was going to be be hard to get rid of us.
So my goal was to make it as successful as I could in the first four months and make sure that they saw that our fundraising could keep up with what was needed because it's always hard to take things away from people. And a lot of people in the pediatric intensive care unit are there — it's not fun place — but they end up there because their kids are sick. So it's something that people would notice if it was gone all of a sudden. So the idea of just being sure that we were proving our worth, not to the families and not to the PICU staff and not to the PICU doctors that were using it, but to the bureaucracy that surrounds an organization like this. So I feel like we are pretty persistent and we got it done and now we have two machines. I'm hoping for a third. So we'll see where it goes. But, um, persistence paid off in this particular situation.
Passionistas: What's your dream for Aaron’s Coffee Corner?
Carolyn: The dream changes. I find that I get an Instagram post from a family at Lurie's and they say how much it's meant to them to have this coffee. They've been there for 42 days, and that makes staying at Lurie's and just Lurie's worth it because I know that we're really having a direct impact on the people that are using it. I think pre-Covid we had like a five-year plan, which is now maybe like an eight-year plan. And we would like to spread it to a couple of other hospitals, either locally or a hospital that has a number of hospitals throughout the country.
And that would be creating it in a way that we could help them with a grant. And create a lesson plan or a syllabus on how to raise money and how the hospital should raise money. Because what we do for Luries is a separate entity, even though they help us collect money. And I think that it's important as we move forward that the hospitals know how to continue the relationship with their families and how to build on the fact that they are doing something for the families and how working with families can also help children thrive when they are ill.
So that's our, that's our goal. I don't know when we're going to get there. I am feeling that Lurie's needs us right now. And I feel like we are, we are helping a pretty large population because they're a large hospital. But I would like to help smaller hospitals as we move forward. And that's why I really want them to take part in the fundraising and maybe find a family that could support Aaron’s Coffee Corner as a fundraising family. So I have all these ideas in my head, but right now we're focusing on Aaron’s Coffee Corner and how we raise our funds and that we can continue the legacy. I mean, we're in our fourth year and we'd like that to be for 40 years. There’s no end in sight for our work at Lurie's. So it depends on where the path leads and we're going to, we're going to see what happens.
Passionistas: How can the Passionistas community support Aaron’s Coffee Corner?
Carolyn: Well, there are a couple of ways. You know the whole thing about, we're basically an online organization because of Covid. So the last few years we have really done all of our fundraising online. And the best way for people to help us with that is to like us and to follow us, to comment because that all is algorithms and they just drive me crazy. So that's the easiest way just to support us by giving us a little like. That is a big support.
And then we run fundraisers. We run online fundraisers. We're in the middle of one right now for our fourth anniversary. And we also do local fundraising. So we do events. If you're local and you want to do an event and come join us. We do all kinds of things like jewelry. And Estetica Mia has helped us, which was one of the Passionistas group organizations. And we did an online facial. It was awesome and very successful.
We try and support local organizations that are also woman-run. So we have a friend of ours from Deerfield who has a clothing store called Apricot Lane, and we try and work with her. And we try to stay local because we are a local organization. But you would be surprised how many people know somebody that has been in a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and can relate to the fact that they’re astounded that there's no coffee there. Or that they know somebody that's actually been to Lurie's because it's a world-renowned hospital, and they know somebody that has, that knows somebody that their child was there. So we have a lot of outreach online on Instagram and Facebook.
Passionistas: And you have amazing merch. too.
Carolyn: We do have amazing merchandise. We have an online store. Thank you, Nancy. We do have an online store here. Look at that beautiful mug. It's great. It's huge. It's great for breakfast in the morning or mac and cheese in the evening. Whatever you need — also good for coffee. Not going to say it doesn't work for coffee.
But we have water bottles. We have everything. And our shipping is free. So you can check us out at www.aaronscoffeecorner.org and go to our online store. You can also donate online, and that goes straight to Lurie's. So it's a nice way for us to get everything in one spot on our website.
Passionistas: Tell us what the phrase “Power of Passionistas” means to you.
Carolyn: It is an interesting concept because women run the world. And I think that the idea of women supporting women is kind of overlooked and sometimes not really appreciated. So I think that it's really important for people to remember that we should be supporting one another as women. And we should be supporting people that are believing in what they're doing because everyone that is participating in this is really trying to find a way to help others be their best selves. Whether that is — remembering to be kind or remembering how to act in an office or to vote. Those are all things that can bring more gusto to what women can do in the world. And it's an important time to remember women have a say in what happens in the world. And we should really take advantage of it.
Passionistas: What's your dream for women?
Carolyn: Wow. I would like them to get paid as much as men. I would like them to be appreciated for working from home. I would like them to have a right to choose what to do with their body. I mean, these are all very basic things that really haven't quite hit the threshold yet. And I think that we need to look around and those basic levels of necessity be reached.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to the awards presentation with Carolyn Koppel. To learn more about how you can support her mission to provide 24/7 access to free, fresh, quality coffee in the family great rooms of pediatric intensive care units visit Aarons Coffee Corner dot com.
And be sure to subscribe to the Passionistas Project Podcast so you don’t miss any of our upcoming inspiring guests.
Until next time, stay well and stay passionate.