Last November, Kristen Marconi, a 32-year-old cancer survivor, learned about the nonprofit Sink or Swim Philadelphia while watching the evening news.
Knee-deep in medical bills and with rounds of chemotherapy treatments to go, Marconi thought the new grassroots organization might be able to help.
Each month, Sink or Swim chooses one local uninsured or underinsured person and tells their story. At that point, Sink or Swim’s large online support network takes over — sharing each recipient’s story and, hopefully, encouraging donors to open their wallets. The concept is known as crowdfunding.
“It’s one of those things where, by sharing your story, whatever it may be, really helps relate yourself to someone else,” said Marconi, who was selected as Sink or Swim’s December recipient. The nonprofit raised over $3,000 to pay down her medical bills.
“I was honored [to be chosen], because I know I was not the only candidate being considered. Even if we were only able to raise a couple hundred dollars…I was severely underinsured at the time of my illness,” she said.
Sink or Swim interviews potential recipients to verify their stories and debt. Once selected, the nonprofit sends all dollars directly to creditors.
Other recipients have included Joan, a 59-year-old with aggressive breast cancer; Ava, a 7-year-old who suffered severe brain trauma after being struck by a motorcyclist; and Pete, the 29-year-old founder of Little Baby’s Ice Cream, who manages the complexities that come with a liver transplant.
“Turning a year, I feel like we’ve just hit our stride,” said Marion Leary, a Northern Liberties resident who founded Sink or Swim in October 2011. While working as a nurse in an Intensive Care Unit, Leary was moved by the very ill patients who agonized over the expense of getting well.
“People are literally having to decide between food and medication,” she said. “I couldn’t sit around and do nothing anymore.”
Few resources, big impact
Sink or Swim has relied on Leary’s charisma and a handful of dedicated volunteers to run the organization. It received a few micro grants to cover startup costs, and its overhead is minimal.
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Still, Sink or Swim’s presence has expanded rapidly. Nearly 17,000 people visited the website since April, and in the last six months, its Facebook reach increased 3,000 percent. In June, Leary was honored at the KYW NewsRadio Women’s Achievement Awards.
“Social media is at the heart of what we do and is how we engage donors and potential recipients,” said Katie Block, a marketing professional who also serves as a board member.
“We’ve become a source for people to turn to who might be dealing with the same ailment,” she added. “Social media has no bounds.”
As it expands, Sink or Swim hopes to feature more recipients on a rolling basis and hire an executive director to take the helm. Leary plans to keep her day job.
“The big picture is to get some grants and hire people,” she said. “This experience has opened my eyes to complete strangers helping each other. People are so nice.”
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