The remarkable Newlen family turns a struggle into an opportunity to help others
Mark Newlen received a Sullivan award during his college days at the University of Virgina. In addition to his exceptional track record of service, he turned in some impressive performances on the basketball court and was selected for the Atlantic Coast Conference’s All-Academic Team.
Like most Sullivan award recipients, Mark has continued to make service and social entrepreneurship a top priority in his life. But he isn’t a one man show. That giving spirit and desire to make positive change is a mission shared by the entire Newlen family, even when that family is confronted with tragedy.
Mark and his daughter, Kali, were recently met with such a tragedy when Mark’s wife, Kim, died in February 2014 at the age of 57. It was a heartbreaking end to a 7-month battle with an aggressive form of breast cancer—the second such battle Kim had to endure. And while the story of her death is a painful one, it’s the story of her life that her family and friends most want to tell. Kim met the challenge of cancer not by despairing or crumbling in fear but by turning it into an opportunity to improve the plight of breast cancer sufferers everywhere.
A courageous heart
Before they learned about Kim’s cancer, the Newlens were already a family deeply concerned with improving the lives of others. Mark’s Making of a Champion youth clinics had taught more than 10,000 kids the game of basketball and used a positive sports experience to offer additional life lessons. Kim had already created a global phenomenon with her “Sweet Monday” womens’ groups—a venture that started as a simple weekly prayer and social gathering at her home and now operates all over the world. Kali, then a student at James Madison University, had dreams of impacting the world with her creativity, and was studying media in preparation for her career.
When Kim received her initial diagnosis in 2004, her first reaction was the obvious one—disbelief and fear. She fought hard, however, and managed to bounce back, even organizing the “World’s Greatest Tea Party,” a celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Sweet Monday, in 2005. Despite still being in recovery from that first bout with cancer, Kim managed a huge success. The event was attended by over 7,000 people and set the world record for biggest tea party—literally.
Cancer, sadly, was not through with Kim yet. But Kim was also not through fighting, and she decided to fight not only for herself, but for women everywhere.
Recovery… in style
Having been through the rigors of breast cancer treatment herself, Kim knew well the difficulties women in that position go through—and identified one of them that she could alleviate. While recovering, women make frequent trips to the hospital and, while at home, often have to employ special drains, emptying them several times a day.
Kim approached those problems with an invention—a stylish camisole that hides drains and provides women easy access to them without removing any clothing. The garment also makes hospital visits less tiresome by eliminating the need to change into a hospital gown every time.
Kim acquired a patent for her garment, and Mark joined her in her effort to make them widely available. Together, they arranged production of the camisoles and acquired contracts with major hospitals. Doctors and patients alike praised the camisoles for their practicality, as well as for their style—a consideration that might seem trivial to others in light of a life-threatening disease, but can be a source of comfort for women struggling to feel a sense of normalcy during a turbulent time.
The Newlens encapsulated the purpose of their product perfectly when they named their line of products “Look Better Than You Feel.” Without ever planning on it, they had become full-fledged social entrepreneurs.
A legacy worth preserving
The Newlen family, having been through a terrible ordeal already, finally had to endure what Kim so feared when she got the news in 2004. After her death, memorials and well-wishes poured in and the community came together to support Mark and Kali. Among the mourners were close friends as well as total strangers who had been touched by Kim’s evangelical work and the Newlens’ efforts with Look Better Than You Feel—a testament to the extraordinary reach her kindness and compassion had.
Mark put the effect Kim’s personality and her deep Christian faith had on others when he spoke at her memorial service:
“Let’s honor Kim’s legacy by learning from her example reading God’s word and trusting Christ as Savior and Lord. Kim saw the world through Jesus’ eyes. Kim looked beneath the surface and saw deep within. She saw gifts and talents in people that they couldn’t see in themselves.
“When you met Kim for the first time she made you feel as if you had known her all your life. One thing is certain: You will never be the same again! You all have been blessed to know Kim as a friend.”
Nearly a year later, Mark and Kali are still recovering, but plans are in place to continue Kim’s legacy. According to Kim’s wishes, Kali will take over Look Better Than You Feel and hopefully resume filling orders sometime later this year. Continuing the fight is a fitting way to honor a woman who did so with such courage, showing others how to do the same along the way.
“My mom had the biggest heart,” Kali writes in a tribute to her mother. “She taught us to celebrate everything, to live without regrets, to forgive deeply, and to love deeply.”