The Magic Maker: Helping Families with Sick Children

After 16 years on movie sets, Paula DuPre Pesmen gave it up to help families with critically ill kids.

By Gerri Hirshey
A master of logistics, DuPre Pesmen has shifted her focus from the trolls and Dementors of Harry Potter films to the scourges of pediatric cancer. (Photo: Cheyenne Ellis)

Acts of Generosity

It’s early evening in the foothills of the Rockies, and the four members of the Pesmen household are riding northwest toward another Big Sky sunset, enjoying some rolling family time en route from Denver to their home in Boulder. Curt Pesmen drives the huge black SUV; Joshua, 5, and Jesse, 2, chomp turkey sandwiches in their car seats as their mother, Paula DuPre Pesmen, runs through the day’s umpteenth checklist: "Okay, we’ve got 65 frozen meals in back. Curt, do we still have that case of diapers? They need to go to Ronald McDonald House. Josh, want more sandwich?"

The meals the Pesmens just picked up — donated by a Denver businesswoman — are intended to ease the fragile, strained lives of families with critically ill children. So are the diapers. "Babies on chemotherapy can go through twice as many," DuPre Pesmen says. The SUV bears a logo: THERE WITH CARE. The name she chose for the nonprofit she founded at the end of 2005 is also an apt description of 46-year-old DuPre Pesmen’s seismic midlife change — a turnabout that has drawn her whole family in its wake. "There with Care does a lot of small things for families with very sick kids," she says, "but small things can make a big difference."

Case in point: Rick Barber was told that his teenage son Eric might die of his brain tumor. Getting Eric to intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments proved so time-consuming, Rick was about to lose his job and with it the family home. "I didn’t know where to turn," he says — until TWC volunteers took over the almost daily transport. Eric is now in remission, and, his father says, "These kind souls saved my job and my house."

Coordinating so many acts of generosity — and more than 100 volunteers — means a lot of days on the run for the Pesmens, far from the glittering gypsy camps of international movie sets where the family began its life together.

During her 16 years as an associate producer for Hollywood director Chris Columbus, creative, high-pressure problem solving was DuPre Pesmen’s stock-in-trade — from appraising the delicate physics of Robin Williams’s faux cleavage in Mrs. Doubtfire to debating the special effects of a million-dollar mountain troll to menace Harry Potter. (Columbus is still a close friend and a member of TWC’s board; he also donated the $43,000 SUV.)

Today DuPre Pesmen’s problem solving is lower-tech. And the stories often have devastating plots: "We have one woman with a brain tumor, a 2-year-old, and a husband who works days and goes to school at night so he’ll have a better-paying job if he has to raise their son alone. We were giving her babysitting help, and she was telling me how she missed being able to cook, because of memory problems."

TWC matched her with a volunteer couple. The husband, a cancer survivor, does handiwork around the house. His wife helps the mother make the 2-year-old’s lunches for the week. For the mother, each mac-and-cheese victory is huge. "We made a little photo book with descriptions of things the son likes to eat, to help her remember," DuPre Pesmen says. "Our goal with any family is to normalize the situation in whatever way we can."

Although the challenges are vastly different from those of the mad, mad movie days, she says, "The hours are about the same — seven days a week, and very late at night once the boys are in bed." She worked unpaid for two years; TWC’s only salaried employee, a volunteer coordinator, started this past August. In September, the TWC board approved a modest compensation for its founder, which will be at most 15 percent of her former salary. The family lives on Curt’s earnings as a freelance writer and publisher. "When people ask about adjusting to a single income, I usually say our karma account is full," DuPre Pesmen says. "It has been a year and a half since I worked on the last film, Rent, and I haven’t had a day where I didn’t feel passionate about what we’re doing."

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