The Cortez family at Family House. (Photo/Susan Mall)
The Cortez family at Family House. (Photo/Susan Mall)

Childhood illness and tikkun olam at Family House

Over a decade ago, I was on hiatus from my longtime role with the Jewish Community Federation and wanted to learn more about photography, a practice  I enjoyed. Little did I know that I was going to have an experience that would transform my life and bring clarity to the definition of tikkun olam as a form of physical healing and profound giving.

I decided to take a documentary photography class at San Francisco City College. The first class project required me to take pictures of a subject once a week and chronicle the subject for the duration of the four-month class.

Soon after receiving the assignment, I had lunch with my friend Alexandra Morgan, CEO of Family House. I knew of the organization, but I was not intimately familiar with its level of kindness and compassion, and its ability to provide care for families in desperate need.

Alexandra agreed to let me follow and photograph a family staying at Family House for my class. Imagine this scenario: You live in the Central Valley. Your four-year-old child has lost her balance and you take her to the doctor. The doctor says your child has a life-threatening illness that requires immediate transport via helicopter to San Francisco. With no warning, advance notice or planning, you must drop everything to go with your child to San Francisco for who knows how long, or for what reason.

This is what happened to the Cortez family and their four-year-old daughter Sophia, who turned out to have a brain tumor. Sophia and her family immediately checked into Family House, and for the next 11 years, have been able to stay at their home-away-from-home whenever Sophia had a procedure, needed a medical test, or had an appointment with her UCSF doctors.

The Cortezes allowed me to chronicle their stay and observe the roller coaster of emotions, their anxiety and fear, as well as the compassionate care that Family House provided them. I took pictures when they first checked into Family House, when Sophia received treatments, when Sophia felt well, and when she didn’t. I am happy to report that Sophia is now cancer free and is a healthy teenager.

The decision to take that photography class took on added importance when my husband, Jay, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma several years ago. It was the Cortez family who provided me with deep friendship and unconditional support as my family navigated my husband’s illness. Today, I am even happier to report that Jay has recovered and my family’s relationship with the Cortez family continues.

Since the day I met the Cortez family, I have become a Family House board member and 40 of my nature photographs hang in the hallways at the new building in Mission Bay. What started as a photography class project has turned into one of the most fulfilling relationships I have ever known, with tikkun olam at its core.

For over 40 years, Family House has provided free housing to children with life-threatening illnesses, and their families, while they undergo treatment at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. In 2015, the organization expanded with the opening of the Nancy and Stephen Grand Family House in Mission Bay and, in 2020 and under Covid restrictions, they served over 700 families from all over the world.

Please visit to learn how you can give and how your life can impact others in ways you cannot imagine or believe.

Susan Mall
Susan Mall

Susan Mall lives in San Francisco and is a San Francisco Library Commissioner.