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Spare Key opens doors for parents of sick kids
South St. Paul couple’s nonprofit helps families keep their homes during crisis
If you were forced to make a decision between your job and your child, what would you do?
That’s the question South St. Paul residents Patsy and Robb Keech faced over two decades ago when their son, Derian, was born with a severe genetic disorder. Derian required frequent hospitalization, and the Keeches had to choose between spending time with him at the hospital or going to work in order to keep a roof over their heads.
With bills stacking up and Derian’s condition worsening, the Keeches were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Fortunately, family and friends of the Keeches saw the family’s need and stepped in to help. They raised enough money to cover part of the Keeches’ mortgage payment, giving the family more time to spend with their ailing son.
The Keeches’ personal crisis - and the generosity of the community - inspired them to help other families by starting the nonprofit organization Spare Key.
Spare Key gives housing grants to families with children in the hospital. In its 17-year history, the organization has paid out more than $2.2 million in housing grants for more than 2,100 families. Recently, Spare Key’s biggest fundraiser of the year, the Groove Gala, helped them raise over $400,000 to help families with critically ill children.
Their motto is “We help families bounce and not break.”
One short life, one big difference
In 1993, Patsy and Robb’s son, Derian, was born with CHARGE syndrome, a genetic disorder that affected his eyes, ears, nose, heart and development. He spent a lot of time in the hospital, undergoing nearly a dozen surgeries, five of which were on his heart.
His parents wanted to be at his side constantly. Patsy took unpaid leave from her job as a teacher at Apple Valley Middle School to spend time with him. While the leave gave her time with her sick son, it left the Keeches in a difficult position, since they depended on Patsy’s salary to help pay their mortgage.
It was during their crisis that family, friends, coworkers and even students came together to raise money to make payments on the Keeches’ mortgage. Their generosity gave Patsy and Robb the financial freedom to spend another six months with Derian before he died at the age of 2 1/2.
After Derian’s death, Patsy and Robb say they felt a need to give back. Derian taught them what life was like when health was an issue, Patsy says, and they wanted to honor his memory by helping other families who were struggling during a child’s health crisis.
“We were really led to do this,” Patsy says. “Now that we knew there was a different kind of life out there, we knew we couldn’t go back.”
When it started in 1997, Spare Key was run mostly from Patsy and Robb’s kitchen table. The organization slowly took off, gaining support from a “passionate” group of doctors, bankers, nurses and social workers, according to Patsy.
Running a nonprofit was a lot of work, especially after the Keeches had their second child, Connor. Once again, they struggled to make a difficult choice: spend time with their child or spend time building their philanthropic organization.
In 2000, they were near the end of their rope. They’d helped over 50 families, but with a young, healthy son, they wanted to spend more time on their own family. They decided to give the Spare Key project one more month before calling it quits.
One phone call changed everything. That phone call was from Oprah’s Angel Network, inviting the Keeches to appear on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to receive the “Use Your Life Award.” Although nervous about appearing on national TV, the Keeches happily agreed to be on the show. In addition to the award, Oprah’s Angel Network donated $50,000 to Spare Key.
It made all the difference. “Oprah really helped us at a time when Spare Key would have just folded,” Patsy says. “That $50,000 made a lot of mortgage payments (for parents with hospitalized kids).”
Soon after their appearance on “Oprah,” local news stations got wind of the story and word about Spare Key spread. The charity took off, and has continued to grow ever since.
The Keeches continued to run the organization until 2004, when they stepped down from a leadership position after their daughter, Darby, was born. Though she’s no longer involved in the day-to-day work of the organization, Patsy says she still works to share its mission, especially with her students at Eagan High School.
“I want them to know that you need to dream really big,” she says. “If you can dream it you can make it happen. I want my kids to know that all things are possible.”
Same mission, new directions
In the years since Patsy and Robb stepped down from heading the Spare Key, the nonprofit has undergone tremendous changes.
Under the leadership of executive director Erich Mische, whose background includes 30 years in politics and government, the nonprofit has changed dramatically in the past two years, while maintaining the same mission of helping families.
“The last two years really has been a profound journey for all of us as we’ve been given the opportunity to take something Robb and Patsy started (and develop it),” Mische says.
Those developments include expansion of the organization inside and out.
In 2013, the Twin Cities-based organization began offering help to families in three more states - South Dakota, North Dakota and Wisconsin. It’s currently planning to extend into seven more. In the same year, Spare Key also started helping families make payments on their rent as well as mortgage.
To make payments and donations easier, Spare Key began accepting the virtual currency Bitcoin this year on its website. They hired two new staff members in the past two months, one to manage the new cryptocurrency systems and another to lead the effort to raise even more resources for the organization.
All of these changes have led to one big difference:
“We were able to reach more families and raise more money,” program director Nikki Lignell says.
For many of the families that Spare Key helps, the organization’s housing grant might be their only financial assistance during their child’s health crisis. “A very large percentage of the families that we help are middle-income families that don’t qualify for a lot of other assistance,” Lignell says.
“We know there’s a need out there,” Mische adds. “(Our) mission is to grow to raise the resources to help families who desperately need this kind of support.”
Grooving and growing
Spare Key’s biggest fundraiser of the year, its annual Groove Gala, took place in March at Aria in Minneapolis. More than 600 people attended the gala, which featured silent and live auctions, as well as a performance by the ‘70s disco dance band Boogie Wonderland.
The gala celebrated the families Spare Key has helped, a number of whom told their stories at the event. It also honored Spare Key’s sponsors. The Edina Realty Foundation received this year’s Derian Keech Parade of Kindness Award. The award honors those who have gone above and beyond in supporting Spare Key. It also celebrates the spirit of Derian, the little boy who made it all possible.
“Derian really represents the heart and soul of Spare Key and what it stands for,” Mische says. “Creating this award and naming it after Derian was really the right thing to do.”
The first annual Parade of Kindness Award was given to Bell Mortgage in 2013.
The 2014 Groove Gala was Spare Key’s most successful one yet. It raised over $400,000, which Mische hopes will help Spare Key support more families this year than ever.
In the past two years, Spare Key has more than doubled the number of families it’s been able to help. In 2012, Spare Key gave housing grants to 209 families, the most it had ever helped in one year. In 2013, it assisted close to 500.
This year, the nonprofit plans to beat that goal by helping more than 500 families with sick or injured children make rent and mortgage payments.
Patsy Keech says she always hoped Spare Key would become what it is today. She’s proud of what Spare Key is doing to help families, and she doesn’t expect it to stop growing.
“They are totally committed to their families,” she says of Spare Key. “Whatever is best for their families is what they’ll do to change (and evolve).”
For more information about Spare Key, visit www.sparekey.org.
Kaylin Creason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 651-748-7825.
One family’s story
Mother honors daughter by giving back
Nikki Lignell knows the ins and outs of the Spare Key charitable organization unlike anyone else. As Spare Key’s program director and a two-time recipient of the organization’s housing grant, she realizes what a difference a mortgage payment can make.
In 2004, Lignell’s daughter, Riley, was born with Aicardi syndrome, a rare congenital disorder that caused her to have daily seizures. Complications led Riley to be hospitalized frequently, often for extended periods of time.
“We spent almost 50 percent of our time in the hospital,” Lignell says.
With bills adding up, Lignell didn’t know where to turn for financial aid.
“There really wasn’t a lot of help out there for us,” she says.
A social worker at the hospital told Lignell about Spare Key. She filled out the application and hoped for the best. A month later, she was overjoyed to receive a call telling her that the organization was going to pay her mortgage.
“When they called me and told me that mortgage was going to be paid for that month, it was amazing,” she says. “It just really took that financial burden off.”
She received her first housing grant from Spare Key in 2009. In March 2011, she received another grant from Spare Key. The second grant allowed her to spend a few final weeks with her daughter, who passed away on March 24, 2011.
“All that time is just priceless,” Lignell says. “It really was an amazing gift.”
After Riley passed away, Lignell started volunteering at Spare Key. “I just knew I had to give back,” she explains. Now, as Spare Key’s program director, Lignell is on the other end of the telephone, calling families to give them the good news that Spare Key will help take care of a mortgage or rental payment.
“It’s a great way where I can have a job in honor of my daughter,” she says.