Bringing Smiles to Kids’ Faces by Robyn Pasante

October 30, 2009

October 30, 2009 – Cheryl Hornung was stillwracked with grief over theloss of her 7-year-old daughter,Caitlin, when she made a fateful call toPenn State Hershey Children’s Hospitalin December of 2000.

Caitlin had died of cancer in Octoberof that year, just before her 8th birthday.Her mother, a bargain shopper whosnatches something up when she seesa good deal, already had purchased herbirthday and Christmas gifts. “I calledPenn State Children’s Hospital andasked if I could bring in all her pres-ents,” says Hornung, of Middle PaxtonTownship. “And I saw what a differencethat made for the children.”

Bringing smiles to sick kids gave Hor-nung a much-needed smile of her own.It also gave her a mission.

Three years later, Hornung startedCaitlin’s Smiles, a nonprofit organizationthat supplies craft kits, art supplies andgift bags to kids with chronic and life threatening illnesses. It honors the legacyof a little girl who loved to do arts andcrafts and then give them all away.

“She used to spend all her time coloring pictures and giving them to all thenurses that came in the room,” Hornungsays of Caitlin, who was diagnosed witha brain tumor in 1997 at the age of 4.More surgeries and hospital stays fol-lowed, and Hornung and her husbandmade sure Caitlin always had her back-pack of craft supplies with her to keepher distracted and happy.

“When she was an outpatient, she’dpass out smiley-face cookies and what-ever crafts she had that day to the otherkids, doctors and nurses,” Hornungrecalls. “We found with her that healingwas as much mental as it was physical.”

When Caitlin lost her battle, it wasHornung who needed to heal. She vol-unteered for the organizations that hadhelped their family during Caitlin’s or-deal. But she kept thinking back to herdaughter’s backpack of arts and crafts.

Finally, in 2004, she decided to takethe plunge. Progressive Education ofChildren in the Arts Network offeredto help her start the nonprofit Cait-lin’s Smiles. When she stopped by herchurch, First Zion Lutheran Church inDauphin, to tell Pastor Randy Barr thenews, he immediately gave her the keysto an empty office in the church buildingto use as Caitlin’s Smiles headquarters.

He also gave her a head start onsupplies. “He told me that he had 600boxes of markers in the back room thatsomeone had just donated to the churcha few days before,” she says. “He said,‘I’d like to keep one or two dozen forour Sunday school kids, but you cankeep the rest.’”

Barr, who is now on the nonprofit’sboard of directors, says the free officespace was a natural response to Hor-nung’s idea. “It’s a little church with abig heart,” he says. “When people comeby and want to do good things, we say,‘How can we help?’”

Hornung’s little endeavor quicklygained steam, and she cultivated a cadreof volunteers to help her buy, pack anddeliver several different kinds of goodybags. There are age-specific Bags ofSmiles, which contain craft kits, Play-Doh, art supplies and a homemadecard. There are Arts and Crafts Kits forhospitals to keep on hand for kids whoare awaiting test results or getting bloodtransfusions. And there are Family CareKits that include a gas card, phone cardand local restaurant gift cards to make theexpense of caring for a sick child, some-times far from home, a little bit easier.

The organization relies on donationsof money and supplies, fundraisers, theoccasional grant and a lot of volunteers.In 2008, Caitlin’s Smiles delivered morethan 70,000 Bags of Smiles and Arts andCrafts Kits to kids in hospitals up anddown the East Coast.

Mason Koppenhaver of Berrysburgwas one of the earliest recipients of aCaitlin’s Smiles bag. Mason’s mother,Heidi Koppenhaver, remembers the dayin July 2004 at Harrisburg Hospital whena hospital worker brought in a bag ofgoodies for Mason, who was not quite 4.The boy was getting prepped for his thirdsurgery that year, and nothing — not hisSpongeBob SquarePants blanket or hisparents’ loving hugs — could take awayhis fears. “Then the child life specialistbrought in this bag and it was like heimmediately forgot why we were there,”Koppenhaver says. “I didn’t even knowwhat was in the bag, I was just like,‘Thank you so much.’”

Koppenhaver tracked down Hornungto thank her personally for the gift —and to become a Caitlin’s Smiles volun-teer. “I don’t think people realize, unlessthey have a child who’s sick, just howmuch it means,” Koppenhaver says.That has been among the biggestsurprises for Hornung.

“I am shocked daily,” she says of theoutlet her organization gives to thosewho need to spread smiles, not just re-ceive one. “I saw my clients as just beingthe kids and families in the hospital. Andnow I see how important it is for peopleto get hooked up to a good cause and beable to give back.”

In February, Caitlin’s Smiles movedits headquarters to downtown Har-risburg because it had long outgrownits space at the church. Trying to makerent payments along with meeting everyrequest that comes in can be stressful,but Hornung says it’s comforting to stayso connected to Caitlin, who would be17 now.

“Most of the time I really feel herpresence up there guiding me,” Hor-nung says. “I know she’d say, ‘Way togo, Mom. I love this!’”