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An outreach begun by a Dauphin resident marks
TEN YEARS OF SMILES

By Louise Troutman

 

Cheryl Hornung stands in front of a wall in Caitlin’s Smiles’ rented facility. On the wall, decals display the names of donors. (Sentinel photo by Louise Troutman)

This month, Caitlin’s Smiles™ marks its 10th anniversary.

When Cheryl Hornung of Dauphin formed this non-profit organization in March 2004, she wanted to keep alive the smiling attitude of her young daughter Caitlin who had died from brain cancer three and one-half years earlier.

Caitlin had been diagnosed with cancer at age 4 and endured numerous radiation treatments, chemotherapy, surgeries, and blood transfusions, but was able to keep a positive attitude by finding joy in creating art. She gave away her art  and craft creations to other children, doctors and nurses in whichever hospital she was in at the time. Sadly, Caitlin passed away shortly before her eighth birthday.

As she remembered the positive feelings of self-worth Caitlin received from creating artwork and giving it away, Cheryl decided to start an organization to take arts and crafts kits to hospitals to bring smiles to other children facing serious illnesses.

Her church in Dauphin, Zion Lutheran Church, offered office space and a group of volunteers offered their time to pack and deliver the appropriately named “Bags of Smiles.”

That was 10 years ago. Now, Caitlin’s Smiles delivers kits to more than 80 hospitals and clinics.

Cheryl said she never expected her little organization to be so successful.

“I just expected to be working with Penn State Children’s Hospital and it just exploded. I’m just trying to keep up,” she said.

In 2009, the organization moved to a rented warehouse facility at 3303 N. Sixth St. in Harrisburg. 

“That was the tough thing, leaving the church in Dauphin, but we ran out of space,” Cheryl said.

The Harrisburg facility has a heated office space area where volunteers assemble kits, as well as a warehouse to store kit supplies and the boxes used in deliveries.

Variety of kits. Relying on volunteers, the organization packs several varieties of fun kits:

• The age-specific “Bag of Smiles” contains two individual craft kits, Play-Doh™ or modeling clay, coloring book or drawing pad, crayons or pencils, small toy or book, a journal, and a handmade card. These bags are sorted by age for preschool, elementary school and teenage children. This bag is the largest of the kits and the most in demand.

• “Arts and Crafts Kits” are given to hospitals to distribute to children awaiting test results or blood transfusions. These kits are separated by ones containing beads and non-beaded items, and by age and gender. These kits are also included in the Bags of Smiles.

• “Family Care Kits” include a gas card, phone card and local restaurant gift cards to help families with the expense of long-term hospital stays. Family Care Kits are given to the hospital’s pediatric social workers and the local Ronald McDonald Houses to be distributed.

• “Coping Kits” are smaller versions of the Bags of Smiles and are used by emergency rooms and outpatient surgery departments for pediatric patients.

Hospitals. In 2013, Caitlin’s Smiles gave away a total of 139,000 Bags of Smiles, Arts and Craft Kits, Coping Kits and Family Care Kits to families and children in hospitals/clinics in Pennsylvania and surrounding states including New York, New Jersey, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

“We work with 80 hospitals and all are done a little differently – some have a standing order, some call or email us, and some we call,” Cheryl said.

“At non-children’s hospitals, we work with the nurses in the pediatric units.

“Children’s hospitals have Child Life staffs who coordinate activities and we work with them. They also have a Ronald McDonald House person who is in charge of the waiting room.

“At Hershey, we supply the craft kits and many of the books on the carts that the Ronald McDonald House person takes from room to room,” Cheryl said.

Caitlin’s Smiles’ volunteers do not deliver the kits directly to the children.

“We get the kits to the hospitals and they deliver the kits to the children. The nurses are as happy as the families [to receive the kits],’’ Cheryl said. ‘‘The nurses are the ones who get to hand out the kits and get to see the smiles on the kids’ faces. It’s like Christmas, they say.’’

“After the tornadoes in Oklahoma [a few years ago], we sent a one-time delivery of Bags of Smiles and craft kits to several children’s hospitals in the Oklahoma City area. We just felt like it was the right thing to do,” Cheryl noted.

After Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in the fall of 2012, Caitlin’s Smiles also sent kits to some hospitals in New Jersey.

Volunteers. The organization always welcomes new volunteers. Help is needed to assemble various items for the arts and crafts kits into plastic bags, to make handmade cards and to deliver the kits and cards to hospitals and clinics.

“This place is always crazy in a fun way with all the volunteers. Everybody who comes here wants to help and has a heart to volunteer,” Cheryl said.

Some volunteers, including some from northern Dauphin County, have helped for several years.

Carol Koppenhaver, formerly of northern Dauphin County but now living near Harrisburg, has volunteered for more than eight years. She packs the teenage Bags of Smiles and delivers them to area hospitals and lends a hand wherever needed.

Elsie Stroup of Fishing Creek Valley has volunteered with Caitlin’s Smiles for nine years. Stroup packs the elementary-age Bags of Smiles and, due to her involvement in square dancing, delivers the Bags to Lehigh Valley Hospital and St. Luke’s University Hospital in Bethlehem. Stroup said the organization means a lot to her because she lost her young daughter to cystic fibrosis.

“I think what Cheryl is doing is wonderful. When the children are waiting for their cancer treatments … these kits give them something to do. They love them,” Stroup said.

Ryan Bowman of Halifax helps by delivering supplies for the kits. He has gotten his extended family involved as well.

“Every Christmas our family donates to a charity instead of buying gifts for each other,’’ Bowman said. ‘‘This year we had our nieces and nephews decorate bags for the Bags of Smiles. We showed the whole family Cheryl’s video. We had a basket under the tree for checks and donations.’’

Killinger Goal Mates meets Mondays at Salem Lutheran Church and for the past two Christmas seasons chose Caitlin’s Smiles to receive its holiday collection. Group members have gotten involved in other ways, too – Rena Kessler decorates handmade cards; Ardy Ann Klinger assembles kits; Marie Koppenhaver makes friendship bracelet kits; Fern Bucher donates craft supplies and PlayDoh®; and other members have donated supplies.

Members of Simeon Lutheran Church in Gratz, including choir members, have supported Caitlin’s Smiles’ annual walk and donated supplies. Barbara Williard made “guardian angels” and has donated craft supplies and yard sale items.

Mason Koppenhaver of Berrysburg and his mother, Heidi, are regular volunteers and have held toy drives for Caitlin’s Smiles. Mason has faced health issues and was the subject of a Sentinel article a few years ago. He and his family’s involvement began when he received a Caitlin’s Smiles Bag of Smiles while in the hospital.

Some volunteers from the Harrisburg area, including retired folks, help on a regular basis.

Lee Lathan helps with warehousing, snow removal and assembling of various items into the craft kits.

Marjorie Fisher, who helps assemble craft kits and wherever she is needed, said, “It gives you such a great feeling to put a smile on their faces. We know the good its doing.”

Holly Lynch, who helps assemble craft kits, commented, “It brings me joy to do something for someone who is sick. I was sick as a child and I’m glad to bring fun to their day.”

Judy Marcus helps assemble craft kits and makes deliveries to the Harrisburg Hospital.

“I use the word ‘mitzvah.’ It’s a good feeling to do a good deed and not get paid,’’ she said.

Cheryl said the Bags of Smiles and other kits sometimes are delivered to hospitals by local volunteers who are going in that direction for other reasons.

“A Pitt college student offered to take kits to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. One of my Dauphin volunteers takes kits to St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia because her grandkids live there,’’ she noted. ‘‘Another volunteer has a daughter who attends Temple University so she takes kits to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia and her son attends West Virginia University so she supplies West Virginia University Children’s Hospital,” Cheryl said.

Many items are needed. “Many businesses donate their empty [computer] paper boxes,” Cheryl said. Kits are packed into those cartons for delivery to hospitals.

“We buy thousands of one-subject spiral notebooks when they are on sale and turn them into journals [by applying hand-decorated construction paper to the front],” she added.

“Before Christmas, I was buying crayons and Play-Doh™ and many schools, businesses and clubs had drives.

“Barnes and Noble and Books A Million had book drives this Christmas which brought in thousands of books,” Cheryl said.

The organization’s wish list includes new drawing pads, coloring/activity books, writing journals, markers, crayons, pony beads, lacing for necklaces, tubs of foam  beads/stickers/activities, small Ziploc™ bags, and Play-Doh™ or Crayola Model Magic™.

Also, hand decorated cards are included in each Bag of Smiles. Instructions on what may be included are provided on the website, www.caitlins-smiles.org

Fundraisers and special events. Groups such as companies, service organizations, church/school groups, and clubs are encouraged to schedule special events to assemble craft kits, decorate bags, make cards, or raise funds for Caitlin’s Smiles. Events have included holiday trees, craft drives, bake sales, sporting events, and even dress-down days.

Cheryl said she tries to hold at least one fundraiser a month. Funds are used to purchase items for kits, and to pay for rent and heating costs. Whenever she is invited, she said she will speak at (fundraising) events.

Zion Lutheran Church in Dauphin will hold its annual indoor yard sale and soup, sandwich, and baked goods sale to benefit Caitlin’s Smiles Friday and Saturday, April 4-5.

Three major fundraisers are scheduled this year. They include the Highmark Walk for A Healthy Community scheduled for Saturday,  May 17 at Harrisburg Area Community College; a golf tournament at Armitage Golf Course in Mechanicsburg Friday, May 30; and an arts auction Saturday, Oct. 18 at the Radisson in Camp Hill.

Plans are underway for an event to mark the 10th-anniversary of the formation of Caitlin’s Smiles. A Family Celebration/Com-munity Thanks event is planned for the fall season.

Awards. Cheryl’s work has been recognized with numerous awards.

She received the Capital Region United Way Volunteer of the Year Award, the Jefferson Award, and Rotary’s Service Above Self Award. Also, she said she was privileged to meet U.S. President George W. Bush when the White House staff called her in 2004.

“He picked smaller charities to give us more recognition and put us in the limelight,” Cheryl said.

Personal healing. The formation of Caitlin’s Smiles has helped Cheryl’s personal healing process.

“It’s been a real help. I feel I’m in a great place now to help other families in the same situation,” she said.

Getting involved. To volunteer, donate, provide supplies, or plan a Caitlin’s Smiles fundraiser or a kit assembly event, call the office at 412-4759 or email caitlinssmiles@comcast.net

For more information, visit www.caitlin-ssmiles.org


 

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