Story by: Julie Kruer on November 30, 2022
Photo: Jeffrey Cumberbatch, chair of the Norton Healthcare Foundation Board of Directors and Marita Willis, chair of the Norton Children’s Hospital Foundation Board of Directors.
Norton Children’s Hospital Foundation board of trustees Chair Marita Willis arrives at board meetings a few minutes early to silently read the Norton Healthcare mission statement. It’s the line about “honoring our faith heritage” that means the most to her.
“That’s what embodies me — faith,” she said. “Because who could survive losing both children and still show up without faith? Norton Healthcare is faith driven, and that’s what keeps me going and wanting to be a part of it.”
Marita lost her son, Ra’Shaan Willis, at age 16 in the March 1997 flood in Louisville. Her daughter, Ra’Tonya Willis-Friedman, had sickle cell anemia and died from complications in 2017.
After Ra’Shaan’s passing, Marita and her husband of now 46 years, Bob Willis, along with their son’s friends from St. Xavier and Trinity high schools, began the Team Shaan Foundation. Today the foundation honors Ra’Tonya as well.
Soon after its start, the foundation partnered with the Center for Women and Families to fund a teen room. That’s where Marita met Lynnie Meyer, R.N., Ed.D., CFRE, senior vice president and chief development officer, Norton Healthcare but previously with the center.
“Lynnie led us through that process,” Marita said, recalling how Lynnie also made an impact on Ra’Shaan’s friends through the project. “Lynnie is like a sister to me. We don’t always agree, but I know Lynnie Meyer is always in my corner.
“So, when she asked me to be on the Norton Children’s Hospital Foundation board of trustees, it was exciting, but scary.”
Marita has served on the board since 2010.
Marita understands the significance of what a children’s hospital can mean to families like hers.
“When Ra’Tonya was 6 months old, she was crying uncontrollably,” Marita said. “Our pediatrician, Dr. Grace James, called us into her office and told us Ra’Tonya had sickle cell anemia. We didn’t know anything about it. Nothing, nada, zilch. Bob and I had a lot of questions and experienced a lot of fear and hurt for our daughter.”
Dr. James, who opened her pediatric clinic in West Louisville in 1953, was the first African American physician on the faculty of the University of Louisville School of Medicine. She referred Ra’Tonya to Richard S. Wolf, M.D., who was medical director at what is now Norton Children’s Hospital and serves as honorary chair emeritus of the Norton Healthcare board of trustees.
“Dr. Wolf cared for us like none other,” Marita said. “You would have thought we were their children. We would go in there speechless, so hurt sometimes, and they were always there. Not just medically, but mentally, educating us about this whole health care system.”
Norton Children’s serves all families regardless of their ability to pay and relies on the generosity of the community to help provide for the physical and emotional health of children, from birth to adulthood.
Today, it’s still the people and the relationships at Norton Healthcare that make it great to Marita — she’s a relationship person.
“From the foundation perspective, we are always looking to make our children’s hospital the best. We want the best physicians who also care about the patient, have empathy and go beyond.”
Lynnie is grateful to have Marita’s continued support and leadership on the board all these years after they met.
“She’s always been dedicated to serving her community,” Lynnie said. “It takes the support of everyone in the community to continue to advance the work of Norton Children’s, and we are so fortunate to have a connector like Marita leading our board.”
Marita, who currently works as the president of community engagement for Community Ventures in Lexington, is excited to be the foundation’s board chair at a time when Norton Healthcare and Norton Children’s are working toward health care equity with projects like the Norton West Louisville Hospital.
“It goes back to caring and faith. It’s more than just a hospital,” Marita said. “We are a community that takes in the sick and deals with them in a holistic fashion. We stand in the gap for them, we fill the gap.”