CARIBOU, Maine — When Chris and Cindy Johnson decided to open The Cubby Thrift Store in Caribou, they knew immediately that while their business would be taking money from customers, it also would be giving something back.
As parents, they knew that they would focus that effort on seriously ill children, since their own son, 15-year-old Kaleb, was born with a disease that doctors told them might kill him by the time he was 4-years-old.
As part of their goal, the parents established of The Cubby Fund, a nonprofit organization that offers financial support to children with chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
The Johnson family first opened The Cubby Thrift Store in 2010 and now have 16 employees at two additional stores in Presque Isle and Madawaska. The stores are dedicated to providing quality, gently used items at low prices. Every item is donated and is showcased on the sales floor, so customers are offered a wide variety of products.
The stores are named in honor of their son, Kaleb, whose nickname is “Cubby.”
“I was nervous at first about opening the store,” Chris Johnson admitted during a recent interview. “My biggest fear was inventory. I was worried that we wouldn’t have enough donations or that we’d have too much and not be able to sell it. But we have an amazing patron base. The donations are fantastic. We are never without them and we have such strong support from our customers.”
Once the business got off the ground, the family set about establishing The Cubby Fund.
“Our plan from the time we opened our first store was to create something that would give back,” he said. “My background is in strategic planning and consulting, so when we first got the idea to open the store, things evolved really quickly. We were able to start helping children pretty fast.”
As part of the fund, families can receive financial support to cover lodging, food, fuel, medical equipment and other expenses related to a need or hardship created by a child with a life-threatening or chronic illness. The Cubby Fund also strives to lessen the emotional burden faced by parents and families as they care for a child with a life-threatening illness.
The store implements various programs to raise money for this fund, such as a program that allows patrons to donate an additional dollar toward their purchase at the cash register. Each extra dollar then goes into the fund.
The store also started a support group that meets the first Tuesday of every month and is open to parents of children with any type of disability. The group offers discussion, workshops and special presenters.
Chris Johnson said that he and his wife know what its like to have a child with a serious illness and how it can devastate a family emotionally and financially, as their son Kaleb was born with NF1, a disorder that causes tumors to form along the nervous system. There is no cure.
“You don’t know how heartbreaking it is until you have a child that is sick and there is nothing you can do about it,” he said. “Its completely out of your hands. And that is why we feel for these parents who come in, and they are devastated when their child has cancer and they don’t have the money to pay for hotels when their child needs treatment in Boston or gas money when they have to take their son or daughter back and forth to Bangor. There are people that have insurance, but these are things that insurance does not cover. People sometimes don’t think of that.”
Johnson said that patrons have been “extremely generous” when donating to The Cubby Fund. He and his wife also started the Cubby Heroes project, which focuses on one child with a serious illness each month. The story of the child’s bravery is put in the local paper and the youngster receives a monetary gift. The program also recognizes individuals and groups who go above and beyond to support the program’s heroes.
“It is just a feel-good cause,” said Cindy Johnson. “I can’t imagine doing anything other than this. Seeing the kids’ tenacity, their love for life, makes me realize how much I have to gain from them, how much we all do. This life is about giving, and they have taught me that. I am just so grateful.”
Karyn Pinette of Caribou was one of the families who was touched by the generosity of The Cubby Fund when her great-grandson, Zyen Provost, 3, was diagnosed in Jan. 2012 with XLP, short for X-linked lymphoproliferative syndrome.
Also known as Duncan’s syndrome, it is a genetic defect found in boys that causes the immune system to respond abnormally to some viral infections, resulting either in an underactive or overactive immune system. The disease is seen so infrequently that only approximately 400 boys have been diagnosed worldwide, according to the XLP Research Trust.
Provost was singled out as one of the Cubby Heroes and offered monetary support. Pinette said that she was grateful for every penny.
“We really appreciated what the store did for us,” she said. “Traveling back and forth to Boston and the lost wages really hit us hard, so every little bit helped.”
Provost underwent a successful stem cell transplant at Boston Children’s Hospital on May 31 and is currently in recovery.
Chris Johnson said that as long as the need is there, they will continue The Cubby Fund.
As far as business, Johnson has set his sight on expansion.
He plans to open a store in Houlton this spring.