Apr 11, 2023
Supporting the families of frontline heroes: The Brave of Heart Fund

Throughout the pandemic, health care workers and volunteers put their health and their lives on the line, selflessly working on the frontlines to take care of Americans in the fight against COVID-19. Tragically, more than 115,000 health care workers globally lost their lives in the first 18 months of the pandemic. Their families – many of whom were financially overwhelmed – continue to shoulder the emotional burden left in the wake of their loss.

In April 2020, the Cigna Foundation partnered with the New York Life Foundation and E4E Relief to launch the Brave of Heart Fund, to provide charitable grants and emotional support to the families of U.S. frontline health care workers, volunteers, and support staff who lost their lives. The fund, which closed to new donations in May 2021, raised and allocated more than $65.6 million and continues to make an impact on thousands of surviving family members.

While no amount of money can take away the grief of these families, the Cigna Foundation is proud of its efforts over the past three years in partnership with New York Life Foundation and E4E Relief. Looking ahead, our work will center on uplifting future generations through ongoing emotional support for surviving children, educational support and scholarships, and nonprofit partnerships to diversify and inspire the next generation of health care heroes. Read on to learn more about the Brave of Heart Fund, the impact it has made, and its work to support future generations.

Emotional and financial relief when families needed it most

The founding mission of the Brave of Heart Fund was to provide affected families with immediate emotional and financial relief. An analysis of Brave of Heart recipients found that nearly 80% of the health care workers and volunteers lost to COVID-19 were the sole or primary earner in their household, and 62% of the recipients were caring for dependents in their homes. Most recipients now have household incomes of $50,000 or less.

In the first 24 months of the program, the fund provided more than $31 million in financial support to nearly 1,000 individuals across 44 states. That money helped ease the burden and stress of immediate expenses, including funeral and burial costs, rent or mortgages, food, clothing, transportation, child care, medical bills, and mental health counseling. These grants were the only financial support provided to more than a third of the recipients. The money helped provide stability, with two-thirds of recipients reporting it allowed them and their families to continue living in their homes.

While the initial goals of the fund focused on immediate relief and support, the work continues and has expanded to support future generations of health care workers.

Building resilience for surviving children and families 

The pandemic has had a devastating effect on children and their families. More than 200,000 children in the United States have lost a primary caregiver to COVID-19. In its latest phase, the Brave of Heart fund awarded nearly $6 million in grants to 14 organizations to provide children and families with the resources they need to recover from COVID-19 related trauma. This includes efforts to promote long-term emotional well-being and coping skills, grief and bereavement counseling, and engagement through mentorship programs. Organizations include the Dougy National Grief Center for Children & Families, Eluna, National Alliance for Children’s Grief, National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, TAG Center, and Tuesday’s Children, to name a few.

The fund’s partnership with Comfort Zone Camp, for example, provides free in-person and virtual programs designed to transform the lives of children and young adults experiencing the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19. Comfort Zone Camp combines traditional, fun camp activities with nurturing tools and emotional support to break through emotional isolation due to grief and loss.

Inspiring and uplifting future generations

Another core piece of the Brave of Heart Fund’s continuing work is focused on supporting future generations through scholarships for family members of health care workers who lost their lives to COVID-19 and programs aimed at diversifying the health care workforce.

The Brave of Heart Scholarship was introduced as an extension of the initial relief grants. Administered by Scholarship America, this scholarship provides up to $50,000 per year to undergraduates in any major and graduate-level students in a patient-facing medical major. Nearly $20 million has been designated to support the scholarship, and the first cycle of applicants was overwhelmingly made up of students from families that also received a Brave of Heart relief grant.

Additionally, the Brave of Heart Fund is awarding grants to two organizations committed to the diversification of the health care workforce. The fund has dedicated $3.5 million to the nonprofit organization Achieving the Dream to support its work with community colleges to close equity gaps, improve outcomes within health sciences and nursing programs, and identify opportunities to expand high mobility programs and nursing pathways for underrepresented students. The fund also dedicated $3 million to National Medical Fellowships to provide financial and mentorship support for historically underrepresented students training to become physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants, and to create a culture of health equity for future generations of students.

Supporting the emotional well-being of health care workers

To honor the legacy of the health care heroes we’ve lost too soon, the continuing work of the Brave of Heart Fund strives to promote the emotional well-being of the current frontline health care workers who support us all. Research from The Cigna Group found that health care workers have among the lowest levels of vitality across industries – only 15% report having high vitality.

To help reverse this trend, the fund works with nonprofit organizations across the country to equip frontline health care workers with the tools they need to emotionally thrive, supporting them with direct counseling, coping and resiliency skills, and workplace well-being initiatives. The Brave of Heart Fund has dedicated about $3 million to partner organizations and initiatives, including the National Alliance on Mental Health’s Frontline Wellness program, Mental Health America’s resilience and life coaching pilot programs for health care workers, and the Center for Workplace Mental Health’s efforts to eradicate mental health stigma in the health care sector, to name a few.

The Cigna Foundation, in partnership with New York Life and E4E Relief, was honored to receive a Gold Halo Award from Engage for Good, which recognized the Brave of Heart Fund as the best COVID-19 initiative of 2022. The true honor, however, is the privilege of playing a part in supporting the families and descendants of those health care workers and volunteers who dedicated their lives to protect us during our time of greatest need. Three years after the onset of the pandemic, the Brave of Heart Fund looks ahead proudly to support future generations of children, families, and health care heroes who live on in their legacy.

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