Meredith Ruden, MSW ’09, DSW ’18

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Dr. Meredith Ruden distinguished herself in both our master’s and doctorate degree programs and as an MSW Fellow in our Zelda Foster Studies Program in Palliative and End-of-Life Care. She has been adjunct faculty member at NYU Silver as well as Columbia School of Social Work; has presented at the annual conferences of organizations including the Association of Oncology Social Work, Social Work Hospice & Palliative Care Network, and Hospice and Palliative Care Association of New York State.

According to Meredith, her own experience with early stage melanoma in her mid-20s led her to leave a burgeoning career in advertising sales to pursue oncology social work. After earning her MSW and while receiving post-graduate mentoring through the Zelda Foster fellowship, she began as an oncology social worker at Cancer Care and a year later moved to Mount Sinai Hospital. In 2014, she was promoted to Social Work Program Coordinator at Mount Sinai, a position she held throughout her DSW studies.

Upon earning her DSW in May 2018, Meredith founded The Feather Foundation, which provides online emotional, financial, and practical support for parents with cancer. In November 2018, she left Mount Sinai to devote herself full-time to her role as President of the foundation.

We recently caught up with Meredith, who told us more about her journey to non-profit leadership and what she aims to achieve now that she has arrived.

Why did you decide to pursue a DSW?

What had always appealed to me about social work is that it allowed me to wear so many different hats – clinician, advocate of individual clients, groups and the social work profession, program developer, supervisor, teacher, writer, etc. I had the opportunity to develop in these respects in my hospital position, through the Zelda Foster fellowship’s mentorship program, and as a new adjunct professor at NYU. I thought I could benefit from further education to inform me about how I could expand in these new roles and tasks, and I saw in the DSW at NYU a curriculum that would do just that.

What led you to found The Feather Foundation? Was it something you learned in your DSW coursework, something you experienced in your life, or a combination of both?

Like everything I’ve been led to in social work, The Feather Foundation came about as a combination of professional and personal experience and education. I became aware that there was a huge unmet need – the needs of parents and caregivers with cancer to be emotionally, financially, and practically supported – after talking to patients and learning about the research on the stress and worse health outcomes associated with caring for kids through cancer treatment. People who have childcare responsibilities are more likely to have more symptoms at greater intensity during chemotherapy! I came up with the “vision” and services for The Feather Foundation slowly as I thought through parenting challenges I was familiar with as a parent of a 5 and 3 year old – and paired those with memories of my own cancer experience. What the latter taught me was that cancer doesn’t just impact the individual who has it. In my case, my parents and sibling were shaken up too. I then developed it in a class on social work and leadership which demystified and broke down the steps to leading an organization.

Please explain what The Feather Foundation does.

Through its website, The Feather Foundation offers online peer-to-peer support, “tip sheets” on common difficulties with parenting through cancer and self-care for the person who takes care of kids, some limited financial help to New York and New Jersey residents towards childcare costs, and more. There are few resources out there for this big and growing group. So, we fill the gaps where we can and direct individuals to other resources out there so they don’t end up endlessly searching on the internet. Eventually, we’ll offer practitioner training as well.

How many staff does The Feather Foundation have and do you plan for it to grow?

We have a multidisciplinary board that includes an oncologist. We also have an assistant and an audit board. Importantly, the contributors are not only clinicians – but also individuals with experience in non-profit operations, fundraising, and law. I act as the Executive Director. We absolutely hope that it will grow. We hope to add a social work student with interest in non-profit development and healthcare advocacy to our team soon!

Were their classes or mentors in the DSW program that were particularly helpful to you in founding The Feather Foundation?

Dr. Linda Lausell-Bryant, who taught the class I mentioned, has been a mentor, expert and supporter of this. I asked her advice, and continue to benefit from her realistic, knowledgeable and encouraging approach. Talking about the idea with some classmates was also a huge help. It gave me new ideas (from them and in just talking about it more!) and made me feel accountable to them, as well as to myself and the population I hoped to serve.

Now that you are working full-time for the Feather Foundation, what are your short- and long-term goals?

We have a multi-pronged approach. We want to spread the word about our services and improve them. We aim to expand our fundraising efforts so that we can expand our financial support to residents of other states and provide larger amounts. We’d like to offer a larger financial grant for people at specific points of care, and in specific situations such as inpatient stays. We aim to create “train the trainer” webinars, and have discussed creating a weekend retreat for parents and their kids, creating a needed break and special time together.

How did NYU Silver prepare you for this position?

NYU Silver deepened my understanding of clinical matters at the individual level, and, then, helped me to see the interconnectedness of this and mezzo and macro issues. Parents with cancer struggle, in part, because childcare costs are prohibitively expensive for so many of them, and because jobs and health insurance don’t cover individuals during serious illnesses like cancer adequately. NYU Silver also helped me to believe that I can take on a leadership role, and built skills needed to enable me to do so. NYU Silver is unique in that it both offers high quality education and individual support. I’ve asked for extra help – and encourage students with ideas of their own to share them while at NYU Silver and welcome feedback. There is so much that needs to change in society and the social service sector, and I sincerely believe that new social workers who persevere will offer solutions that can improve things.