Karen Pence found herself in a quandary soon after settling in last year as Indiana’s first lady.
She was overwhelmed with requests from charitable organizations to take up their causes. It wasn’t that they weren’t worthy. It was that she didn’t have enough time to champion them all.
Her solution was to create a foundation to raise money and distribute those dollars to Indiana organizations that serve the state’s children and families.
“There were all these great causes, and I felt like I was saying ‘no’ to everything,” Pence said. “I thought, ‘What kind of person does that?’”
On Wednesday, the new Indiana First Lady’s Charitable Foundation conducted its inaugural fundraising event, the First Lady’s Luncheon, modeled on a century-old annual event in Washington, D.C.
More than 600 guests heard Pence announce the foundation’s first gift: $100,000 to the Riley Children’s Hospital Art Therapy Initiative. It’s a program close to her heart.
Pence is an artist and a schoolteacher by training. Since moving back to Indiana, after her husband — a six-term U.S. congressman — won the 2012 gubernatorial race, she’s elevated her presence in the state. The first lady is a frequent visitor to classrooms around Indiana and a promoter of using art as therapy for healing body and soul.
In the past, she helped raise money for Riley, a pediatric research hospital in Indianapolis, to start its own art therapy program. But her new foundation (FirstLadysFoundation.org) plans on supporting other causes, too. It’s taking applications from organizations seeking smaller gifts of $500 to $1,000. Recipients of those gifts will also get a publicity boost from her support.
The Indiana First Lady’s Luncheon, conducted at the JW Marriot luxury hotel in Indianapolis, mirrors the annual First Lady’s Luncheon in the nation’s capital. While in Washington, Pence regularly attended that event, which is sponsored by the Congressional Club, a nonpartisan group of spouses of members of the House of Representatives, Senate, Supreme Court and the president’s cabinet.
Its nonpolitical, bipartisan nature appealed to her, so for her First Lady’s Luncheon, the Republican Pence invited her predecessors to attend. Four of them were able to make it, including former first lady Judy O’Bannon, who was married to the late Gov. Frank O’Bannon, a Democrat.
The two became fast friends after Gov. Mike Pence took office. Mrs. O’Bannon encouraged Mrs. Pence to embrace the role of first lady. Her advice: “There’s no guidebook. Nothing that says the first lady has to do this or that,” O’Bannon said. “You just get in there and do the best you can do.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. You can reach her at maureen.hayden@indianamedia
group.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.