Celebrating 10 Years : What’s Ahead

When I started On Angels’ Wings 10 years ago, I intended to fill a need in the 417 area. That was my vision, and we did 41 sessions in and around Springfield our first full year. By 2015, we were looking for volunteers in St. Louis because so many of the families we served at home were going there for specialized care for their child. Then we needed them in Kansas City, too. Over the years we’ve found photographers in a smattering of towns across Missouri to serve families there that heard about us, resulting in an ever increasing number of sessions each year. In 2022 we surpassed yet another organization record by completing 267 sessions across the state.

The first two sessions On Angels’ Wings conducted in October 2013

And in February of 2023, we did our first session in Oklahoma City, our first out-of-state chapter. By the end of this year, we will launch a chapter in Minneapolis. The last three years have been full of firsts actually: Our Vice President, Michelle Slavens, and I became Certified Grief Recovery Method Experts in 2020; we opened our first studio to serve our families more easily in 2021; and I left my journalism career in June 2022 to work for the organization full-time.

As of today, our most prominent areas of service are Springfield (120 sessions in 2022) and St. Louis (135 sessions in 2022 – passing Springfield for the first time). In the Springfield area we serve both Springfield hospitals, CMH in Bolivar and Cox Branson. In St. Louis we provide services to St. Louis Children’s Hospital (the NICU and Heart Center specifically), Cardinal Glennon, St. Mary’s, Mercy St. Louis, and as of 2022, Barnes Jewish Hospital.

We’ve seen year-over-year growth, both in the services we provide and fiscally. While it’s hard to imagine what the next 10 years might look like, we have dreams for this organization that we want to share with you – we want you to know the goals we are reaching for.

Continued Expansion

Top of the list here is the expansion of our Photographer Mentorship Program, which launched in January 2023. This program provides us the opportunity to train up-and-coming photographers who have the heart to serve On Angels’ Wings families but may lack a few of the technical skills to do so effectively in some of the harsher environments we see (such as low light with flash prohibited in hospitals). Currently we have a single Mentor each in Springfield and St. Louis, working with photographers one-on-one. In five years, we hope to see multiple Mentors available in all of our major service areas.

We’d also like to see our board of directors expand in diversity. While we have always been an open and inclusive organization, our board of directors has always consisted of only women and has been limited in service from minorities. We want to strive toward attracting more individuals to serve across different gender roles and races.

We have a few areas in Missouri that we still want to become active in – while we may have photographers in areas like Kansas City, Joplin, and Columbia, we are still working toward establishing a strong relationship with the hospitals so they will tell families about the services we provide. It’s about making the right connections to get in the door. You may be shocked to know that working with a hospital doesn’t just happen – they don’t always accept us with open arms. We want to break down the walls and barriers that are preventing us from serving families who need us (with compassion and professionalism, of course!).

Many of the families OAW services continue to receive pictures at least once a year as their child continues to fight.

Ellie’s first session with OAW was in 2015.
Ellie turned 9 years old in 2023 and continues to fight, receiving a session from OAW each year.  Read her story here.
Eden’s first session with OAW was also in 2015.
Eden just turned 11 years old, against all odds! Read her story here.
OAW has been following Ashlyn’s journey since she was in her momma’s belly in 2014 and given the diagnosis of Trisomy.
Ashlyn will turn 9 this September! Read her story here.

Beyond that, we want to continue seeing the organization expand outside Missouri boarders. Yes, a nationwide organization is exciting in theory, but even in 10 years, we don’t expect to be nationwide – not in the “in every city” sense. We expand the organization one city at a time in order to maintain the integrity of the services we provide. It’s not just about taking pictures, but providing a quality support system. We have to make sure the individuals running the chapters that represent OAW are adhering to our standards, procedures and ethical practices so that the families we serve – who are already going through unimaginable difficulties – always feel tenderly cared for.

Across the board, the continued growth of the organization depends upon exposure. Even now, there are families whose child has pediatric cancer right here in Springfield who don’t know about our services. Awareness is a huge priority for us so that we can serve as many families as possible; there will always be families that qualify for our services, they just need to know about them. We will continue to beef up our online presence and find effective ways to spread the word about On Angels’ Wings without sinking our budget into advertising costs. We’d like to see OAW be a household recognized name in our major service areas within the next three to five years.

Growing Grief Recovery Services

Right now, Michelle and I are still the only two members of the organization (volunteers included) who are certified in the Grief Recovery Method, our choice program for the organization. In fact, there are no GRM specialists within 100 miles of Springfield, let alone within the organization. We did, however, receive a grant this year that will allow us to pay for the certification of two more individuals within our program over the next 12 months.

We want to see the number of certified Grief Recovery Method specialists as a part of OAW continue to increase, and our eventual goal is to have at least one specialist in every chapter location to serve our recipient families as well as that community. All of us – 100% – deal with grief/loss in our lives, and we want to help provide the tools to cope in a healthy and effective way.

Fiscal Improvement

While the organization has continued to see fiscal growth year-over-year (even during the pandemic), the expansion of services means that our funding must expand accordingly, too. OAW launched its first ever gala fundraiser just this past June and we intend to maintain this alongside our longstanding Making Memories Day carnival. We have expanded grant applications and will be able to do so with every chapter we open.

The reality is that growing an organization in the ways we’re envisioning requires a paid staff. When I was serving as executive director with a full-time job, it was as if I had two careers at once, working full time for them both. Something had to give, and I chose to stick with my calling and my passion in this organization. However, that required sacrifice and while I am currently being paid a moderate stipend in this position, the board’s hope is that I will have a reasonable salary within the next two years. The same goes for Michelle, who also serves as our Support Coordinator part time. We’d also like to see additional paid staff, such as an assistant for me and part-time office staff.

Our hope over the next five years is to attract more high-level corporate and individual donors that believe enough in our mission to give annually to our cause. While we’ve been applying for grants consistently, many take years to establish a donation, once the powers-that-be see consistency from our applications. Therefore, we anticipate more grant funds to be available to OAW in the next two to three years as well.

Within the next 10 years, we would also like to be in a position to pay our photographers per session, rather than depend on them to always volunteer their time. Currently we have an ongoing grant from the Hospice Foundation of the Ozarks that gives us the opportunity to provide periodic incentives to our volunteers, but we want to be able to do more to show our appreciation – there is no OAW without them!

We have so many more goals – I don’t want to make this a novel! So, I’ll close with something lovely our VP, Michelle Slavens, wrote to me about our vision for what’s to come:

“I know there are many things that I dream of for OAW. When I look back on the last 10 years and see where we began and where we are now, I see how God has brought us through so much and he continues to do so. Some of our dreams have become a reality and that will continue. I just want to fully serve our recipients the best way we can.”

Couldn’t have said it better.

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