The winter holidays are commonly referred to as “The Season of Giving”. But with a new year upon us and the 2022 holiday season in our rear view, there is one organization in New York City that continues to give back to those in need all year round: Maria’s Love Foundation.
Maria’s Love Foundation is a Brooklyn-based non-profit organization that was founded in 2014 by philanthropist, Antri Orfanos after her mother, Maria Papanikolaou, sadly passed away at the young age of 45 after a five-year battle with cancer. Antri’s goal since the foundation’s inception was to help families in need due to serious illness through various charity events and fundraisers to help alleviate medical expenses and supply them with life-changing equipment such as wheelchairs and other functional items to help improve quality of life. Thanks to over 500 individuals joining their cause, Maria’s Love Foundation has raised over 127,000 dollars to date.
Through the years, the foundation has built strong partnerships with local churches, hospitals and organizations in order to reach out to families and the individuals living with serious illness. One of those partnerships is with St. Mary’s Healthcare System for Children.
Based out of Bayside, Queens, St. Mary’s was founded in 1870 and has the honorable distinction of being New York City’s first medical facility for children and its only provider of post-acute pediatric care. Recognized as a national pediatric healthcare leader for its innovative approaches and high quality care, St. Mary’s Hospital for Children is a total-healing environment providing a continuum of programs and services and the highest level of support to children and young adults with medically complex conditions. Children and their families come to St. Mary’s to receive exceptional care, learn to manage their condition, and achieve a better quality of life.
Naturally, the partnership between Maria’s Love Foundation and St. Mary’s was a match made in heaven due to shared ideals and one common goal: to help those in need.
Desiree Borre – who is an LMSW (Licensed Master Social Worker) and Director of Patient and Family Services at St. Mary’s – recalled learning about Maria’s Love Foundation about six years ago. She was a social work supervisor on the unit at the time and one of her many duties was to work with various organizations and foundations in order to seek out assistance for families of patients who were struggling to pay for items such as wheelchairs, Ipads and other items that their children would need upon discharge and items needed for them while admitted at the hospital.
“When I was put into contact with Antri, she walked me through the application process and just said, let’s keep these lines open and if there’s anything you need, reach out to me,” Desiree recalled. “I can tell you that within the time that I’ve worked with her (Antri), she’s provided assistance with standers for children who have gone home; they’ve assisted with glasses for kids who needed glasses while they were here as well; and they’ve helped with providing Ipads, learning devices and communication devices for a number of the children who needed them. And that was before the pandemic.”
In March of 2020, St. Mary’s was forced to shut down doors to all visitors and vendors due to COVID 19 restrictions. Even the parents of in-house patients had to make a decision either to live at the hospital for the first initial months of the lockdown or set up virtual visits with their children until everyone was cleared to be allowed back in the building. Because of these restrictions, applications for any kind of assisted technology was extremely difficult to complete, complicating the whole process even further. This would prove to be difficult for all parties involved, including the children, especially during the winter holidays. But Antri continued to reach out and keep in contact with Desiree throughout the pandemic.
“It was the Christmas of 2021,” Desiree remembered. “She (Antri) contacted me and asked me what kind of toys we needed, what is it you’re looking for. We spoke about the toys our children would benefit from, sensory wise. A lot of our kids do good with toys that light up and toys that make a lot of noise. A lot of our kids like soft toys that they can cuddle with. And Antri sent me an email, said they were going to do a drive, we’re going to have a collection, and asked me when I was available,” Desiree continued.
“I remember in the morning, I masked up, went outside to the front and she and her husband (James Orfanos) both came driving up – I think their son was even in the backseat – and their trunk was full of just beautiful toys. Between myself and security and our family coordinators here, we loaded up dollies and brought toys in. And we were able to wrap them up and, in our own little way, have a COVID Christmas. And I think that’s the beauty of St. Mary’s. We thrive on our donors and the generosity of our donors. Just the beauty of being able to feel supported in that way… these two (Antri and James) masked up and they, you know, were very, very generous. It was an amazing day.”
Through a number of initiatives and community-based programs, St. Mary’s works with a lot of children who need to be retrained due to traumatic brain injuries and neurological deficits. This includes learning how to walk again where children work with their physical therapy team. One intensive program that was developed is a wheelchair clinic that fits in-house patients for wheelchairs.
There’s also a feeding program for children in the community as well. This makes the generosity and hard work from organizations such as Maria’s Love Foundation even that more important. Because, after all, it’s all about serving the children and helping their families.
Desiree always wanted to do social work, starting out in the early education department at St. Mary’s over 16 years ago. “My team’s job is to really support the families. And that’s what I enjoy most.”
It’s that common goal that has created such a strong bond between Desiree and Antri.
“Our families are the center of what we do,” Desiree began. “Part of Antri’s application process was to actually meet and get to know the children and the families. From a Director of Patient and Family services, that hits me directly. Because that’s why we do what we do. It’s a beautiful representation of what we’re all about. It’s truly a blessing to the families and their children, especially. When they’re being provided an Ipad and other devices that help their children communicate and learn, they’re really appreciative. They really understand the gift that they’ve been given.”
The relationship between St. Mary’s and Maria’s Love Foundation continues to grow strong: Antri and her husband, James Orfanos – through NY Martial Arts Academy – are holding a “Kick-a-Thon” fundraiser for St. Mary’s on January 28th.
“They (Maria’s Love Foundation) have really taken the time to get to know us and just build that relationship. And It’s been great. The appreciation WE have for Maria’s love is beyond words.”