Charity Finds Use For Unspent Gift Cards

By ERINN FIGG

Emily Thomas wants the neglected gift cards that have been languishing for months in your wallets, desk drawers and purses.

According to national statistics, there are plenty of them out there. The most recent figures by global financial services consulting firm TowerGroup in Boston estimate that $2.5 billion went unused on 2010 gift cards, and a total of approximately $41 billion worth of gift card funds has remained unclaimed since 2005.

A recent Consumer Reports poll shows that although 113 million Americans received gift cards during the 2010 holidays, a quarter of those still hadn’t used them by the start of the 2011 holiday season.

Those gift cards could be used to make a difference in the life of a cancer patient, said Thomas, founder of the Collierville-based charity The Cancer Card Xchange, which distributes gift cards to cancer patients across the country. She should know. It happened to her.

After a biopsy revealed squamous cell carcinoma on her tongue in 2007, Thomas and her husband, Joel, traveled to The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for the first of many appointments that would occur over the next two years. During that initial trip, a friend of hers had arranged for a gift card to be waiting for them at a popular Mexican restaurant in town.

“We were clueless, shell-shocked and unfamiliar with Houston. We had no idea how long we were going to have to be there,” Thomas said. “But for one night we were able to just forget all of it and go out like we were on a date. It was so kind and such an unexpected and simple gesture. I’ll never forget it.”

After a successful surgery that put Thomas on the road to recovery, she started mulling over ideas for ways to help other cancer patients.

“I thought I could maybe start some kind of nonprofit travel assistance program for people who need to travel to see specialists, but it just seemed too big and I never did anything about it.”

She shelved her dream for about a year before family friend Jeff Hawkins sparked new inspiration. Hawkins had been fighting metastatic bladder cancer for several years.

His wife, who had taken a leave of absence from her job to care for him, had admitted to Thomas that she often felt awkward asking friends and family members for help – specifically picking up meals and grocery items – because they always refused to accept money for payment. Thomas suggested that gift cards might alleviate the embarrassment of accepting cash.

With the help of Twitter, Facebook and many emails, Thomas collected thousands of dollars in gift cards for the Hawkins family between November 2010 and May, when Hawkins died.

“When it was over, it hit me: This is what I’m going to do for people,” Thomas said.

Leaning heavily on her logistics-minded husband for advice and support, Thomas created a Facebook page, rented a post office box and started a website – www.cancercardxchange.org – “literally overnight.”

In June 2011, she used her 40th birthday party to kick off the campaign, asking friends, family members and party attendees to help her reach her goal of collecting 40 gift cards by the time she turned 40 by donating them in lieu of birthday gifts.

It worked. Since then, Thomas has collected more than $17,000 worth of gift cards and at last count had distributed cards to 125 cancer patients. Her Facebook page and website are inundated with notes of gratitude from recipients.

Carla Burke of Memphis is one of them. Out of the blue, she received a package from Thomas containing gift cards for Subway, Malco Theatres and Ben & Jerry’s. Its effect was both emotional and physical, said Burke, who is fighting winning battles with breast and ovarian cancer.

“You feel so bad and so yucky, and suddenly you get this package and you realize, ‘Hey, somebody actually cares,’” she said. “My husband doesn’t cook, so we used the gift cards to eat. One day we used them to go to the movies. Just getting out of the house and doing something normal for a change helped.”

Earlier this month, the IRS granted The Cancer Card XChange nonprofit 501(c)3 status. Now, Thomas’ immediate goal is to get the Mid-South business community more involved, as one of her biggest fears is that demand eventually will exceed her supply.

“Anything a business or community group can do to help – a drive to collect gift cards, adopting The Cancer Card Xchange as their fundraiser – would help keep that balance so we can keep addressing needs as quickly as possible.”

Some area businesses have pitched in to help. Huey’s Restaurants recently held a gift-card drive, while businesses such as Chick-fil-A and Square Beans in Collierville offered incentives to customers who contributed monetary donations. Others made donations in memory of loved ones.

“When I heard about this charity, I thought, ‘What a fantastic idea.’ I wanted to help,” said John Harrison Jones, owner of John Harrison Jones Architect, a Memphis architectural design studio specializing in custom residential builds. “So I set up a monthly gift. I lost my mother to breast cancer two years ago, and I wanted to do it in honor of her. She would have done the same thing for someone.”

When Thomas looks back, she sees a bigger meaning in her two-year cancer ordeal.

“If it hadn’t been for that cancer – and the fact that I didn’t get too sick from it, that I could still function and had the energy to keep going in spite of it – none of this would have happened,” she said.