In 2009, Los Angeles mom Jo Ann Thrailkill lost her youngest son, Pablo, to cancer. At a devastatingly young 5 years old, Pablo was diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer that affects mostly children. Coming together as a family, Thrailkill and her husband, Jeff Castelaz, set up a nonprofit, she tells Mom.me, "as a way for our community to support us and the childhood cancer community at large."
That nonprofit has grown into The Pablove Foundation, an organization that not only raises funds for cancer research but also educates families that are dealing with cancer and improves the lives of children living with the disease by offering arts programs.
While it has been nearly eight years since Pablo passed away, Thrailkill, her husband and 23-year-old son Grady have inspired families all over the country and hosted celebrity-filled fundraisers (Selma Blair, pictured below, hosted this year's L.A. event) to help bring awareness to and funding for cancer research.
Thrailkill also talked to us about building her organization, how her career as a music-video producer has helped her as president and CEO of Pablove, and how she and her family continue to honor Pablo.
So sorry about the loss of your son. After such tragedy, how were you able to make your vision of Pablove come to fruition?
Thank you. I often refer to The Pablove Foundation as an accidental nonprofit. When my son Pablo was diagnosed, my family set up the 501(c)3 as a way for our community to support us and the childhood cancer community at large. What we didn't expect was to have over $250,000 in that account after Pablo passed away in 2009. It was overwhelming for sure, and it took me until February of 2010 to get my feet on the ground and begin to develop the mission and vision for Pablove. I was a volunteer executive director for the first two years, setting up the business of Pablove and hiring our first staff members. I've always worked, and actually continued producing music videos on the side, while Pablove was getting off the ground. That year, we raised over $1,000,000. It was just the beginning of the impact that our family hoped to make for other families affected by childhood cancer.
Describe the moment you first felt successful with the Pablove Foundation.
In the spring of 2011, we awarded our first Powered by Pablove research grants to three outstanding investigators, and we graduated the first 14 students from Pablove Shutterbugs, the foundation’s signature photography program. Celebrating mission moments and our unique approach to childhood cancer through arts and science felt (and still feels) incredible.
As a successful female leader and foundation co-founder, what are some ways that you want to teach your son Grady about "girl power"?
HA! I love this question. I was a single mom until Grady was 8 years old. Believe me, he totally gets "girl power"! He was witness to my rise from assistant to executive producer in music video production, and he saw firsthand how his stepfather, Jeff Castelaz, and I started Cast Management and Dangerbird Records out of our spare bedroom. And then, of course, he saw me as full-blown mama bear, taking care of his beloved little brother through 13 grueling months of cancer treatment. Finally, he saw and is still observing the growth of The Pablove Foundation and how women, especially moms, can give back, be successful and positively impact other families. Long answer, but I teach through example, and he's lived it with me through thick and thin.
Has there been anything about creating the Pablove Foundation that has surprised you or inspired you in a way you didn't expect?
The overwhelming sense of community and feeling of love has surprised me. It sounds sentimental, but I have always believed that people, deep down, are good. The Pablove staff and I come to work every day to tackle very difficult challenges and are aware of the immense circumstances that families dealing with childhood cancer face every day. Each one of us shows up and is dedicated to our mission, but we also counterbalance the seriousness of our cause by having fun at work. Laughter must be heard every day! It's a rule.
Each one of us shows up and is dedicated to our mission, but we also counterbalance the seriousness of our cause by having fun at work. Laughter must be heard every day! It's a rule.
Can you share a story about one of the kids/families you helped that stands out for you?
I will never forget an early encounter that I had with a mother during our very first pilot program for Pablove Shutterbugs. Her son was a reluctant student. Mom confessed that it was actually she who loved photography and that she had pushed her son to join the class. Through tears, she asked me to look at her son. He was beaming from ear to ear and had a sense of complete joy surrounding him. She said, "He hasn't smiled in months. You did this. Thank you." Now I'm crying.
What would you say are the most important skills you've brought from your experience as a music video producer to being the president/CEO of Pablove?
Being an executive producer in music-video production is mostly sales and logistics. I’ve applied these same things to Pablove as a startup nonprofit, and in many ways, they’ve been key to our success. We are storytellers, selling our cause, and working through the production of events and other fundraising streams. Obviously, being used to working with tight budgets has been one of my biggest assets, which has led us to become a financially healthy and stable organization.
What's your advice for moms who are looking to start their own foundation or nonprofit?
This is a tough one. Nonprofits are not only a lot of work, but they are complex entities. It takes a lot of grit—more than I ever imagined—but for me, it's worth it. If you have a story to share, can identify a need and find partners in the community who can support a unique approach to finding solutions—then go for it. I spoke to a lot of people along the way, and believe me, there were moments of doubt that were overcome by their encouragement.
What would you like parents of children with cancer to know?
For childhood cancer families, it’s an isolating experience—and often difficult to navigate. But, they are not alone. There are many resources that can offer support. It may be hard, but reach out. The Pablove Foundation is just one resource that can become an incredible community and network of caring people who want to help!
What do you see the Pablove Foundation looking like in 5 or 10 years?
Our goal is to grow our Powered by Pablove research grant program to ensure that no brilliant, promising scientist goes unfunded in their initial phase of research, because we know that there are kids waiting for the cures that they will uncover. And we also want to nurture more kids living with cancer through Pablove Shutterbugs by increasing our reach throughout the United States, allowing us to provide a much-needed creative outlet to over 700 kids annually.
How do you as a family honor Pablo, in addition to Pablove?
Pablo's birthday is June 21, and he passed on June 27, so we honor Pablo with a family holiday during that week. It's a time for us to be together, share our joyous memories and reflect on our unimaginable loss with each other.