Kerry Glass helps create life movies for terminally ill patients to leave behind for their family and friends.

By Caren Oppenheim

Thanks to her love of creating home videos from vacation and birthday party footage, Kerry Glass was a pro at turning her family's most treasured moments into lasting keepsakes. What she never envisioned was that her hobby would lead her to a new life path. Three years ago she heard that a woman who lived near her Millburn, New Jersey, home had passed away from lung cancer at the age of 39, leaving behind two kids under age 6. While Kerry had only met the woman casually, their sons were about the same age. Kerry couldn't stop thinking about how that woman's children would never truly know their mother — her personal stories or hopes for their future — and she was inspired to take action.

With her youngest son entering kindergarten, Kerry realized she had the opportunity to go back to work. She decided to pursue something she passionately believed in. "I wanted to create life movies for the terminally ill that would let them leave a lasting memory for their family and friends," says Kerry. She realized she could combine her film experience with her skills from a previous job as an art therapist at a nursing home. In July 2010, Kerry launched Memories Live, a nonprofit that helps terminally ill people create movies as a leave-behind gift.

Kerry started by cold-calling support groups, hospices, hospitals and cancer centers. Social workers became a main source of referrals, helping her spread the word. "Once people heard it was free, it was easier to pitch," she says. "I didn't want to be another bill on their desks and knew in my heart that I couldn't charge anyone."

Kerry interviews each video's subject at his or her home with a small camera, tripod and microphone. "It helps that I'm a stranger walking into their lives, unaware of their history," she explains. "People truly open up to me, telling stories their family might not know." After the interview, Kerry edits the footage and incorporates photographs as well as favorite songs for background music. Some clients also recite poetry, sing or read a bedtime story.

"I really try to delve into subjects' unique personalities," Kerry says. If they have young children, she'll ask parents to offer advice about choosing a college or a career and to incorporate anecdotes from their own experiences. People have also shared thoughts on finding a spouse and planning a wedding interspersed with recollections from their own marriage. "I encourage the client to be the director," says Kerry, "and take the movie on whatever path she wants."

In the almost three years since founding Memories Live, Kerry has had 45 clients, from age 22 to 96. She credits her nursing home experience with teaching her how to stay strong.

"When I walk into someone's home, I know I have to keep it together," she says. "I need to be the strength behind the camera." Clients often express their gratitude, telling Kerry how cathartic and wonderful the experience is. "The positives outweigh the sad parts of the job," she says.

Initially, Kerry paid the start-up fees and other costs out of her own pocket. For the first annual fundraiser, a friend hosted a wine and cheese party. The past two years Kerry has held a Memories Ride at Flywheel, a popular indoor cycling studio; last January the event brought in nearly $30,000. She constantly receives donations from people in her community and has also been awarded two grants, so Kerry now pays herself a modest salary.

Memories Live is basically a one-person operation, though Kerry's husband, Neil, assists with the finances and a close friend handles public relations. Kerry usually works while her children are at school, occasionally interviewing people on weekends. "I try not to talk about business around my kids because it's a pretty heavy topic for them," she says. "But they're starting to understand what I do, and they think it's cool."

While Kerry has helped people in New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, she unfortunately cannot accommodate more distant clients, though she offers guidance to those who want to create their own movies. To help support her nonprofit side, she's considering creating a for-profit arm of the company to offer her expertise to healthy people. In fact, Kerry hopes to make her own movie one day and has started writing down funny stories and family anecdotes. She also picks up valuable wisdom from clients. "One of the best pieces of advice I've received is to not miss special moments with my kids because I may not get another chance," she says. "It's most important to enjoy the time that you have with your loved ones."

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Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.