When Susan Graf was contacted by Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital President Meri Armour about assisting a family traveling from Nigeria for treatment, she immediately began forming a connection with parents Sam and Mary Ayeni, daughter Marvelous and twin girls Miracle and Testimony, who were born conjoined. The founder of FedExFamilyHouse (FEFH) and an active volunteer, Susan recognized that a family traveling 6,000 miles for complicated surgery and follow-up treatment would have unique challenges, but above all else, would have the universal needs for food, shelter, safety and love. Susan and the FEFH team have been able to help provide all of those, and the Ayeni girls have blossomed in Memphis under the care of the woman they now call Grandma.
The Ayenis’ story is only one of the hundreds that inspires Susan’s work and that are enabled by the fundraising efforts of events like the Memphis Food & Wine Festival, taking place October 14, 2017. We sat down with Susan at FedExFamilyHouse to discuss her own personal experience as the sibling of a child needing long-term care and how other Memphians can support these families.
Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Akron, Ohio. I had four brothers; I’m the only daughter. My youngest brother was born premature, and he had some other issues. We were living in Boston at the time, and they had great medical care there and all, but they couldn’t quite figure things out. My mother knew he wasn’t developing properly, so she found a doctor in Philadelphia. She ended up going to Philadelphia, and they discovered that he had a benign tumor on his cerebellum, about the size of a grapefruit. By then he was 2. It had gone undetected. She went there, and it was like a three-week period where she was living in this little walk-up apartment in Philadelphia.
I think that was the only time she ever lived alone in her life, in a strange, unfamiliar city. We always joked later, because I told my mother something about, “That was a really hard time because you were gone for three months,” and she looked at me and said, “It was three weeks.” To me, I guess, it felt like three months. It was just a really difficult time for the whole family.
How did that experience lead to the foundation of FedExFamilyHouse?
I was seated next to Fred Smith [President and CEO of FedEx Corporation] at a retirement dinner one night. He’d already toured the hospital, and they were getting ready to build the new tower. He had seen ICU parents lined up in recliners in a room, that’s about all they had. I think that struck him. It struck me for sure – one night of that would have done me in; I would not be at my best for my child. He brought it up and suggested that FedEx might be interested in helping out in this residential project. From there, we just went after it.
I think at Le Bonheur, in particular, we treat these children holistically; an illness for one child affects everybody in the family. That’s why we try to make this a comfortable place for anybody that wants to join.
Why the move from Ohio to Memphis?
[My husband] Alan decided he didn’t want to work for a big company anymore, so he found this opportunity down in Memphis with a small upstart called Federal Express. We were getting married — we came down to interview December 23, and we were getting married on January 5 — and it was like, “Oh fine, this is the worst time ever to do this.” We came back from our honeymoon, and moved to Memphis. Of course now he works for a really large corporation [as FedEx’s Executive Vice President and CFO], but he was there when it was small — lots of growth, lots of things happening.
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How did you get involved with Le Bonheur?
When [my two daughters] got older, it was like, “Alright, I have to go back to work or do something,” so that’s why I became involved in Le Bonheur. I held several positions within Le Bonheur Club, did a lot of volunteer work and, from there, ended up on a lot of foundation boards and was involved with the building of the new tower, raising money and then FEFH. I didn’t even know where Le Bonheur was until I started volunteering, and I realized what a blessing that was, because my girls grew up healthy and never needed it.
What types of opportunities are there for volunteers at FEFH?
Food is the most immediate thing. People do drives to stock the pantry. The FedEx Pilots’ Wives come and decorate the house for Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa — it looks fabulous in here for the families. You know, some people might be showing up here on Christmas Eve. We try to make it as special as we can. Every year somebody comes down and makes Christmas dinner and Thanksgiving dinner, so they’re all treated like family.
You have a particularly personal connection with Miracle and Testimony Ayeni and their family. What has it been like to watch their journey?
It’s just been wonderful. We saw them when they were conjoined, and to look at them now, just to a layman’s eye, you would never know that anything was different about them. It’s amazing. Their older sister Marvelous is part of the equation, so we make sure she gets to daycare. I can’t imagine being a 3- or 4-year-old around here all day long, and for this long period of time. She’s totally Americanized now. She’s the sweetest thing.
What are your personal highlights of last year’s first Memphis Food & Wine Festival?
It was a wonderful, wonderful evening in Memphis, different than anything I’ve ever been to for a fundraiser. And this year they’ve added more chefs and more wineries. We got so much great feedback from people last year. All the foodies were there, and all the wine lovers. It was really kind of great that we were able to capture other folks and then share our mission. And the group that’s doing the festival is just wonderful. They took it on with such seriousness and dedication, and I think it’s just going to grow and grow.
What is a Memphis Food & Wine Festival guest going to experience?
It’s at the Memphis Botanic Garden‘s Live at the Garden area, and you walk in, and on both sides there’s just one great food opportunity after the other. It’s just so wonderful. There’s a live band on stage, so you get the Memphis music thing going on, too.
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
It’s from my favorite Bible quote, which is up in the lobby here: Hebrews 13:2, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
What are three things you can’t live without?
My morning walk is very important — it gets my day started out in the right direction; probably some hair spray; and a nice glass of wine in the evening.
Thank you, Susan! To learn more about Susan’s work with FedExFamilyHouse, visit fedexfamilyhouse.org. And to learn more about the upcoming Memphis Food & Wine Festival, visit memphisfoodwinefestival.org.
Thanks to Micki Martin for the fabulous photos of Susan Graf!
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