Donor Spotlight: Karen’s Closet

Leominster, MA – Karen DeCisero was born in 1977 with Down syndrome and a hole in her heart. At the time, doctors thought she might not ever walk.

In 1988, Karen walked across the Leominster High School stage to receive her diploma with dozens of the teachers who had helped her over the years; there for her once again. “She became a confident and caring person because her teachers were confident in Karen’s abilities, and showed they cared about her development,” said Phil DeCisero, Karen’s father.


After high school Karen lived with a friend, traveled, and worked at the Johnny Appleseed Elementary School in Leominster, helping to support teachers and administrators who had already done so much to help her. When she passed away in 2009, her parents were profoundly touched by the hundreds of people who shared how Karen had touch their lives, and started to think about a way to keep her legacy alive.


It began simply enough. The next year, Phil DeCisero went to Macy’s and bought $300 worth of toys and brought them to the Johnny Appleseed School so they could be given to needy kids. The following year, a guidance counselor at the school suggested that instead of toys, some children were really in need of coats. So Phil returned to Macy’s and bought coats, which were then stored in a special place at the school called Karen’s Closet.


The year after that, in addition to coats, Phil learned that some of the children needed socks and underwear, and some basic school supplies. Back to Macy’s he went, this time accompanied by a friend. “So here we are, a couple of old guys, buying more than $500 worth of children’s clothing at Macy’s,” he chuckles. “Well, when the cashier found out why, she immediately informed us that we were eligible for all sorts of discounts – I swear we spent $541 and left with about $4,500 worth of merchandise!”


As they were walking out the door, laden with bags, Phil recalled saying to his friend: “If this is what the two of us can do, imagine what we could do if we each got a couple more people to help, and they got a couple more people, and on and on, you know?”


“At the time,” Phil says, “it was just one of those wishful thinking things you say out loud. But then my wife and I received a Christmas card from our friends, Roger and Jean Rosbury, who wrote ‘glad to do something to honor Karen.’ That was when we decided to get a little more serious about it.”


The next year, they made Karen’s Closet an official 501(c)3 organization. Roger Rosbury and Phil DeCisero ran a $10,000 raffle, and Phil’s daughter helped organize a road race, quickly finding financial support from area banks, businesses, and community members. As a result, in addition to a significant increase in the number of items available for needy children in Karen’s Closet at the Johnny Appleseed School, there was also an expansion of Karen’s Closets to many other schools. (There are ten in all today.)


“So this goes on for about three or four years, until my friend Andy Gelinas, who is a retired judge now working at Rollstone Bank, suggests that we create an endowed fund.  This would allow Karen’s Closet to be funded in perpetuity, which is great for Karen’s legacy, for the children, and for our charity board members, since our average age at this point is 72,” says Phil. “So a great idea, except that I have no idea how to do this.”


Fortunately Andy Gelinas knew about the Community Foundation, which helped set up the Karen’s Closet Fund, beginning with a generous contribution of $20,000 from Sterilite.


“Karen competed in the Special Olympics, she played in the Challenger Little League, she performed in cheerleading and dance competitions. She loved her life, and it’s wonderful to know that her story continues to inspire others and, that through Karen’s Closet, she continues to have a positive impact on the lives of so many children,” says Phil.


To be funded in perpetuity, Karen’s Closet needs $650,000. To date the Fund has $118,000 in reserves and an additional $140,000 in pledged contributions. 

Contributions to the fund can be made online here


649 John Fitch Hwy
Fitchburg, MA 01420


Phone: 978-345-8383
Fax: 978-345-1459
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