Volunteers Fulltime for Children and Cancer Patients

That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.– John Ruskin

We have been told that if we want to get something done, we should ask a busy person to do it. Whoever first made that observation must have been thinking of Karen Norman, who works as hard at volunteering as most of us do at our jobs. “I just seem to pour myself into whatever I am doing, and I guess I still think I can do everything, even if I can’t,” she says. Norman, who holds a bachelor of science degree in medical technology and a master’s of business administration, currently is serving as president of the Charity Ball Association; co-chair of the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center Foundation; vice-chair of the Baptist Health System Foundation Board; member of the board of regents of her alma mater, Texas Lutheran University; advisor and former president of the Cancer Center Council; and member of the Cystic Fibrosis Advisory Board. “Hospitals are desperate because they have had such drastic funding cutbacks. Some percentage of their costs is paid by Medicare, but money for specific technological improvements and renovations must come other sources,” Norman says. There is one common denominator among the organizations to which she unflaggingly directs her enthusiasm, her time and her energy. “You meet wonderful people, and all of them are trying hard to make things better,” she says. Norman is co-founder of the annual Book & Author Luncheon, a fund-raising event for the Cancer Center Council. The Council is a volunteer organization benefiting the Cancer Therapy & Research Center through community education programs, tours, patient assistance during visits, clinical support and participation in fund-raising events. “The Book & Author Luncheon is something I talked about doing for couple of years, but I couldn’t seem to get anyone else interested in it,” she says. “Then one day I saw Larry Walker (publisher of the San Antonio Express-News) at a board meeting, and I thought, ‘Now, here is someone who can make this happen.’” Walker introduced her to his wife, Caroline, and she and Norman put together an event that for 12 years has been among the Cancer Center Council’s most successful fund-raisers. Sponsored by the Express-News and coordinated by the council, the annual luncheon features six notable authors and has sold out every year, usually for a full 12 months in advance. All proceeds stay in San Antonio and benefit the CTRC’s Phase I clinical trials of investigational drugs. Because health insurance won’t cover patients’ treatment with investigational drugs, expenses involved in the drug trials must come from other sources, one of which is the National Cancer Institute. The CTRC Institute for Drug Development is one of only 16 institutions nationwide funded by the National Cancer Institute to conduct Phase I trials of new anticancer drugs. By far the largest Phase I clinical oncology unit in the world, CTRC provides treatment to 550 to 650 new patients each year.

The Cancer Center Council pays for patients’ transportation, medical aids and other needs; low-income mobile mammography; cancer education; and designated medical equipment. The council also has pledged $1 million for CTRC’s capital improvement campaign. Other council fund-raisers include the Partners Shopping Card, a program that entitles the purchaser of a $50 card to a 20-percent discount from approximately 400 participating stores during Partners Shopping Week, and an annual lecture luncheon. In March 2001, a golf tournament at La Cantera raised $100,000. Norman, who was the council’s Volunteer of the Year in 1999, brings an infectious enthusiasm and energy to her volunteer activities. “Karen has been an inspiration to anyone who has worked with her,” says Jeannie Frieden, CTRC vice president for external affairs. “She is a beautiful, warm person who is dedicated to the Cancer Therapy & Research Center and its support group, the Cancer Center Council, where she previously served as president and now as advisor. She continues to daily bring objectivity and passion to the mission of these organizations.” Many of Norman’s organizations involve aid to children, “because they can’t help themselves.” A single parent for a decade, Norman humorously recalls how her only child, Kevin Kaase, acknowledged his helplessness and was saved from the life of a drifter. As most kids do at some point in their childhood, he decided things weren’t to his liking, so he was going to run away from home. He was back before he even left the yard. “I can’t run away from home,” he realized. “I can’t drive a car, and I don’t have any money.”

“Children need us,” his amused mother said.
“One of the things that gives me the most pleasure is the Charity Ball Association,” says Norman, who was founding co-chair of St. Luke’s Lutheran Hospital Foundation’s Candlelight Ball. “This year we will give $400,000 to 20 Bexar County children’s charities. “As part of the selection process, we go out and visit agencies that apply for funds. We get to see the children and spend time with them. If we didn’t give to these children, they would go to bed hungry, or they would not receive the health care or education and support they need.”
The Good Samaritan Center, which provides food and child care for poor children in San Antonio, is one of the agencies receiving help from the Charity Ball Association. “Two years ago we built an entire playground for the children,” says Norman.
The contrast of Norman’s own idyllic childhood to the plight of needy children makes her particularly sensitive to these youngsters. She grew up in a loving family living on the outskirts of La Grange (population 4,000), the county seat of Fayette County in the rolling hills of South Central Texas.
“It was so easy growing up in a small town, particularly in the ‘50s. There clearly was ‘right’ and then there was ‘wrong.’ If you did anything you weren’t supposed to do, your mother and father heard about it immediately. I had wonderful parents, and I often think how lucky I was,” Norman says. Her mother, Evelyn Roitsch, still lives in La Grange. Norman remembers walking to the public library with her sister Dotty and coming home laden with classic books such as the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series, Little Women and Little Men and Gone With the Wind. Those volumes so engrossed the girls that they couldn’t bear to part company with them at bedtime, so with the aid of a flashlight they literally went under cover with their friends from the library. Is that where the seeds for the Book & Author Luncheon were planted?

One of Norman’s favorite people when she was growing up was her aunt, Hilma Roitsch Garza. “She was a registered nurse, and she was the kindest, most wonderful person in the world. I wanted to be just like her,” she recalls. When it came time for college, Norman went from her small town to a small university, Texas Lutheran in Seguin, where she earned a bachelor of science in medical technology in 1964. She also attended Hermann Hospital School of Medical Technology in Houston. Twenty years later, she earned a master’s of business administration at the University of Texas in Austin. During her professional career, she has been a chief medical technologist, a laboratory supervisor and a laboratory manager. Her sister, Dotty Vogt, is a registered nurse with the Del Rio Health Department. “Part of me is analytical. I enjoy the analytical part of medicine. Dotty is more hands-on,” Norman explains. Twenty years ago, Norman married Dr. Ruskin C. Norman, a radiologist who now is retired. “He and I like the same things. We like what we’re doing,” she says. The Normans jointly are recipients of many honors, including the 1997 Humanitarian of the Year Award, the 2000 National Humanitarian Award and the National Jewish Medical and Research Award, the 2001 Outstanding Philanthropist Award and the 2002 Humanitarian Award from the National Conference of Community and Justice. In 1998, Norman took a surprising departure from her earlier career by partnering with her niece Amy Vogt in a full-time business venture. She became partner and vice president of The Prestigious Mark, an enterprise specializing in gifts bearing corporate logos. “I like my life, but there are times when I wish I weren’t so busy,” Norman says. Then she remembers a little girl named Melanie Long.

“Melanie had leukemia. She came into the laboratory every week to have blood drawn. I always made sure I was there when she came in. She was just the bravest little girl. She was one child who really needed help. We helped her as much as we could, but that wasn’t enough. If we’d had (umbilical) cord blood for her back then, she would be alive today. Those are the things that drive you to keep trying to make things happen. So I get a good night’s sleep and I’m ready to go again.”

By Loydean Thomas