As a backup dancer for Gloria Gaynor and Donna Sumer, Ava Kaufman toured the world. She was the picture of health until 2009 when an autoimmune disease damaged her heart.
One day she collapsed and woke up in a hospital bed at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Her doctors gave her startling news.
"They woke me up and told me I had a heart transplant," Kaufman said.
Kaufman found that she could no longer walk or talk. She thought about giving up. But one thing kept her going: her 11-year-old daughter, Jade.
Ava made a deal with God.
"I said, ‘If you let me be Jade's mom and go back to who I was before, I would spend the rest of my life giving back,’" Kaufman said.
Within months, she was back on her feet. She decided to start a non-profit organization called Ava's Heart. The foundation helps transplant patients pay for housing and other living expenses while they're getting treatment.
Kaufman's cardiologist, Dr. Juan Alejos, says transplant patients desperately need the assistance.
"Usually in the first three months we require that patients stay locally. That's an expense in California, renting an apartment if you don't have family. Ava has made it possible for our patients who don't have that support," Alejos said.
Kaufman's foundation is helping pay for housing for Marty Vece. The 45 year old is on the transplant list for a new heart. He had to quit his teaching job in Las Vegas and move his family to Southern California so he can be near UCLA Medical Center when a heart comes through.
"Emotionally, it's an incredible weight off our shoulders," Vece said.
Kaufman makes a personal connection with every patient she helps. She's become a mentor to 11-year-old Jessica Ostrand. The Temecula girl has had two heart transplants.
"People just don't know what I've been through and I just kind of want to talk to someone. She's been the one I've been talking to a lot," Jessica said.
Kaufman says making a difference in the lives of others like Jessica and Vece makes all the hard work of running a foundation worthwhile.
"As hard as it is sometimes, I just know this is what I'm supposed to do with the rest of my life, so I'm going to do it," Kaufman said.
Jessica and Vece are grateful for the help they've received. They plan to volunteer with Ava's Heart to help others.
If you'd like to help or donate, visit Kaufman's website at www.avasheart.org.