Ohio Writer Reaches Out a Hand to Those Navigating Tragedy

Daily Point of Light # 7808 May 9, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Brandi Larsen. Read her story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

For better or worse, children imitate their parents, and Brandi Larsen, 45, had shining examples of service and compassion to model. Eileen, an educator who worked with special needs children, would give someone the shirt off her back if they needed it. Eric owned his own appliance repair service and went out of his way to help his customers, even if it was outside his job description. Both were dedicated volunteers.

Tragically, both passed within a year and a half of each other. In 2016, to honor her mom, Brandi and Eric created the Eileen Kleiner Memorial Scholarship for those who are doing good in their community. A few months later, after a battle with cholangiocarcinoma, Eric succumbed to the illness. Today, Brandi walks with others as they navigate the disease with their loved ones as a caregiver mentor with the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation.

She honors her parents’ legacies as well as building one of her own. As a writer, speaker and coach, Brandi is on a mission to create a more inclusive publishing landscape. To do so, she volunteers with Literary Cleveland, developing writers, amplifying diverse voices and transforming her community through storytelling.

Brandi Larsen mentors caregivers of patients with cholangiocarcinoma with the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation and works to develop writers and amplify diverse voices with Literary Cleveland. Photo credit: McKinley Wiler

What inspires you to volunteer?

I believe in repairing the world and leaving the collective campfire better than we found it, so service has always been a big part of my life. I was the kid in high school organizing blood drives. For my 40th birthday, I asked people to bring birthday gifts for foster kids to my party, because where I live, foster kids are given the basics and never presents for their birthday.

I have always been motivated to service by following my parents. It’s my hope that I can give back to the world and that my children will see that and be givers as well. Our kitchen table was where all the kids came to share their problems with my mother, who held everything together.

I once met a woman on a train, it turned out my father had come to her house to do some work 40 years prior. He saw this single mother caring for her dad as well and said, “Why don’t you go get a cup of coffee?” He sat down at her kitchen table and hung out with her dad in a moment that kept her from breaking. She remembered him all those years later.

What is the Eileen Kleinert Memorial Scholarship?

When my mom died in October of 2015, my dad and I wanted to create some way to honor her that could continue to help people. We went to my alma mater and founded the scholarship. I raise money for it and help recipients on their journey through college and beyond.

My mother told me that love is the strongest force in the universe, stronger even than death, and I believe that. Now, there’s a group of people who are touched by her, even after she has passed.

What do you do with the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation?

My dad passed away in March of 2017 from cholangiocarcinoma. We didn’t really know what our bile ducts were let alone that you could get cancer in them. It’s really fast-moving. He told me about it the day after Mother’s Day in 2016, and he didn’t see another Mother’s Day. He turned his care over to me, and I was frantic trying to make sure he was getting the best care. He was already in deep grief from my mother’s death. They were each other’s home just as they created my home within them.

I called doctors from all over the country who were generous and wonderful with their time. I found message boards, and I stumbled upon the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation and a current cancer patient who spent an hour and a half on the phone answering every question I had.

I remember that lifeline. Later on, after my dad had passed, I decided to get involved and applied to become a volunteer caregiver mentor. Now, I provide one-to-one support to caregivers with loved ones who are diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma. I have the privilege and honor to walk beside families in their hardest moments. I help them grapple with decision-making from diagnosis onward and whatever else they need.

Eric Kleinert (left) embraces his wife and Brandi’s mom, Eileen, namesake of the Eileen Kleinert Memorial Scholarship. Brandi cites them both as inspirations for her volunteer service.

What is your role with Literary Cleveland?

I’ve been involved since 2019. In my tenure, I’ve been vice president, president and the governance chair. I’ve been on programming, and I currently serve as the president emeritus. I’ve had the honor of working with an incredibly talented team to guide us through the pandemic, doing everything from writing policy and designing organizational goals through strategic planning. I’ve had a hand in building Inkubator, one of the country’s largest free literary conferences. One of the things I’m most proud of is my advocacy within the organization to create a scholarship fund for writers to attend classes. To date, 138 scholarships have been awarded.

What makes volunteering and early-stage nonprofit unique?

I use the analogy of building the plane as you’re flying it, which is both amazing and terrifying. There isn’t policy in place. You don’t know what you don’t know. When I first started volunteering, board members were taking out the trash and writing grants. We’ve now been able to apply for and run multiple National Endowment for the Arts grants.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

Helping people. That’s a simple answer, but I love being a helper. It’s getting to do good.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

The quiet moments are just as–if not more–fulfilling than the loud ones. When we allow ourselves to be open and connect with each other as humans, there are a lot of incredible moments that can change. And I’ve learned that the grief I felt can be expressed as joy.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Brandi? Find local volunteer opportunities.

Kristin Park