2017 ESL Jefferson Award winner: Rick Keane

March 30, 2018 01:34 PM

Each year, we ask our viewers to nominate people from our community for their volunteerism. The ESL Jefferson Awards are part of the national Jefferson Award Foundation which strives to build a culture of service in communities across the country. Founded in 1972 by well-known public servants including former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Jefferson Awards are the country’s longest standing and most prestigious honor of its kind.

Rick Keane lives by the motto, “Laughter is the Best Medicine,” because he knows being sick or needing medical treatments is not fun.


He dedicates himself to visiting kids and adults at local hospitals two days a week through the “Better Day Buddies” program and Cancer Wellness Connections.

Both programs were started by Eileen Grossman, a cancer survivor, to bring diversionary activities and treats to people in the middle of getting chemotherapy or other such treatments.

You wouldn’t think Rick Keane would be the type to dress up in disguises or wear a chef’s hat and a spatula sticking out of his ears. For decades, he was a serious businessman, a CEO who ran a million dollar enterprises. But after his wife died of cancer, he was ready to give back to others going through the same thing. He used to work for money. Now, that he’s retired, he works for smiles.

He does his best Steve Martin impression with things sticking out of his ears while checking on outpatients who are enduring hours of treatment like Clara Burley, a 14 year old outpatient at Strong.

“It's not fun coming here and getting treatments and stuff. But he has a way of making you smile.”

Her mom says they both appreciate when he brings them a Pepsi and pepperoni slices while the four-hour infusion takes place. Carol Burley says, “It's kind of something she likes to look forward to.  She's mentioned many times on the days she has the infusion, “Is Rick going to be there? Is this Rick's day? So it is a good part of the day.”

Kids really respond to Rick when he holds out his hand for a fist pump or holds out a gift bag of crayons and coloring books and toys -- all to pass the time more easily. The gift bags were created through donations to Cancer Wellness Connection.

Rick dresses up in a different disguise when he visits adults at Highland Hospital and serves soup. Keane says, “I find the adults are quicker to laugh than the kids are because the kids want to see what they're going to make of this.

The adults remember the Steve Martin routine: The arrows, etc., so they immediately get it.”

He remembers when his first wife was dying of breast cancer and what they went through during her treatments. “You'd sit there for hours and just thinking about the fact that one of you has cancer,” says Keane.

So when he heard about Better Day Buddies, he knew it was his calling. Tuesdays, he goes to Strong Hospital. Thursdays, he goes to Highland Hospital.

Keane says, “Each of those days, there are many moments when you can sit back and kind of say, ‘Wow, I guess I made a difference there. Y’know, somebody was glad I did what i did.’”

Rick Keane told us that he and his alter ego do not deserve the ESL Jefferson Award but if it encourages others to volunteer for Better Day Buddies or Cancer Wellness Connection, he would be happy to lend you his glasses with the big nose and mustache for your disguise.

For more info on volunteering, click here.


Rebecca Leclair

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