Sands Point resident Lisa Martin Epstein traded in a career as a high-powered attorney to dedicate herself to transforming the environment that surrounds hospitalized children. Lisa founded and heads up the Smile Foundation, whose mission is "to transform children's hospitals into magical, child-friendly environments." She said, "The children don't want to be there. You have to take away the unfortunateness and the sadness." The Smile Foundation, founded more than four years ago, accomplishes this by designing, procuring and installing artwork, furnishings and what Lisa described as "museum-quality interactive exhibits" throughout the Schneider Children's Hospital (part of the North Shore-LIJ Health System). Lisa commented, "This is the only children's hospital in the area, although there are pediatric units in many of the other hospitals. We have done some projects in satellite units like the North Shore Hospital in Manhasset."
For years, Lisa happily practiced law at News America, a subsidiary of News Corp., the multimedia giant. Although she loved her exciting job, it was too much to handle with two children and plans for another, so she resigned. She said, "Although no one complained, I felt that I wasn't the mother I wanted to be, or the lawyer I wanted to be." Staying at home, however, was not satisfying. "I am a worker," Lisa said. "I have worked my whole life from the time I was little. I asked myself, 'Who is this person who is sitting at home watching TV waiting for the kids to come home?'"
Although Lisa became active with the Port Washington schools and did some fundraising projects for the Community Synagogue, it was not enough. She was looking for a career project that would use her considerable skills and high level of energy. Her husband of 10 years, Michael Epstein, who is on the board of the North Shore-LIJ Health System's Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, introduced her to Randee Bloch. Bloch works for the Health System Foundation, with specific responsibility for the Schneider Children's Hospital. While the two were discussing possibilities for Lisa's involvement, Randee showed her pictures of the plans for the new Children's Hospital. Lisa's immediate reaction was, "It looks like a nice building, but it doesn't look like a children's hospital." By coincidence (or maybe not), Lisa had been to the Nassau County Children's Museum the previous day where, she said, "every inch is designed to educate, amuse, entertain, and engage the children. That's how a children's hospital should be." She immediately knew what she wanted to do. She called someone from the museum to advise them, and persuaded a number of friends and neighbors to get involved. A core group of Port Washingtonians formed the original board of directors, and the Smile Foundation was born. Lisa said that, although the board has changed, all the current directors are Port people.
The foundation, whose motto is "Little smiles make a big difference," recently held a "Family Day" at Shea Stadium. Lisa said that it grew out of requests from families who wanted an event in which the children could participate. Lisa said, "The children were involved at every step of the way in planning and carrying out the event. They had a decoration committee that did posters and ID tags; they put together gift bags; they sold raffle tickets; and they designed and mailed the invitations." Regarding the mailing, Lisa said, "It was like an assembly line. There were about 15 or 20 kids here for two hours; they were so excited they didn't even take a break. My 9-year-old son Jesse was like the foreman." The fundraising event, which was modestly priced to ensure its accessibility to families (children under 32 inches paid nothing), included pregame activities, picnic lunch, a Mets-Braves game, and autographs from the ballplayers.
Some of the projects enabled by the Smile Foundation include computer kiosks equipped with creative software programs, a 45-foot panoramic sandcastle mural that completely covers the walls of the Children's Heart Center, two virtual (waterless) aquaria in the main lobby seating area, a display of delightful self-portraits created by children, a space walk, and a solar mobile. In addition, there is a wide selection of high-quality artwork on display throughout the hospital. The organization is run entirely by volunteers, so almost all the monies that are donated are used for programs. In the Smile Foundation's 2005 annual report, Ralph Nappi, president of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Foundation wrote, "To see the wonder and joy on a child's face when he or she experiences one of your imaginative and innovative solutions is truly heartwarming. To a frightened and vulnerable child, you give a priceless gift - a smile." For more information about the Smile Foundation, visit their web site at www.discoverthesmile.org.
Lisa credits the skills learned when she grew up in what she describes as a "flea market family" for her success in bringing this project to fruition. From childhood, she participated in the family business, which taught her self-reliance. She said, "The way I grew up, when you saw something that had to be done, you did it. You didn't sit around and wait for someone else to do it." She added that in the flea market business she learned to be very creative. "You always had to be developing new ideas and new products."
Lisa hopes by their involvement in the Smile Foundation, her own children - Jesse, 9; Emily, 7 and Eric, 4 - are learning some of these same lessons, as well as the value of helping others. "They need to know that it's not just about writing a check," she said. From the evidence, it would appear that she has been successful in achieving this goal. In addition to actively participating in the Shea Stadium event (mentioned above), the children, led by Jesse, organized a lemonade stand where they sold drinks and gave out Smile fliers. In about three hours, they collected more than $100 for the foundation. To give another example, when Jesse heard that a teacher he loved had family who lost everything to Hurricane Katrina, he organized a fundraiser by selling bracelets. He was able to give the teacher about $1,000 for her family. Lisa said, "I am so proud. I believe that what I do inspires him. His first reaction to problems is, 'What can I do?'" She added, "I think this project has had a good impact on the whole family." Michael, an intellectual property attorney, is also fully involved in the foundation, serving as a trustee advisor, assisting with the fundraising, and in many other ways. "He is very supportive," Lisa said.
Lisa Martin Epstein is receiving a well-deserved community service award from the Clinical Society of Queens and Long Island on June 10.