Lifting Kids’ Spirits: Gifts help cope with life-threatening illness by Daniel Victor

December 17, 2008

When she was in first grade, Claire Brobson worked to make life a little cheerier for kids who needed help. As part of a school project, she filled goodie bags with art and writing supplies for Caitlin’s Smiles, a Dauphin-based charity that delivers presents to children with life-threatening illnesses in hospitals. Less than a year later, after learning she herself had leukemia, she got some smiles from the same program. Both times made her feel great, she said.

The goodie bag gave her a lift when she needed one, offering something entertaining to draw her focus from her illness. Claire, 8, has been writing fiction since kindergarten, creating characters such as Buddy, the dog who opened a store. It’s easy to get bored during long, tough days at the hospital, so she was thrilled to get the supplies she needed for her stories. “It’s kind of a lifesaver, especially for those long clinic days,” said her mother, Lauren Brobson. Caitlin Hornung felt the same way about the care packages her mother would bring her in the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center when she battled a malignant brain tumor. After Caitlin died in 2000, just before her 8th birthday, her mother, Cheryl, began bringing gifts she had intended for to her daughter to other children at the medical center. Cheryl Hornung soon started buying more supplies and giving them to more children. Four years ago, she was handing out 10 bags of goodies per month Caitlin’s Smiles, a nonprofit organization, was created.

Now, backed by a network of volunteers, she’s giving out 400 to 500 per month to dozens of hospitals in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Maryland. But while the demand is there, the effort is running out of room to grow. All the supplies are stacked in small rooms in the second and third floors of the Zion Lutheran Church in Dauphin. It’s a claustrophobe’s nightmare, as boxes are stacked upon boxes. There’s almost no room to walk, and a makeshift labeling system does its best to keep order. Hornung said the organization needs warehouse space to keep the supplies, making it easier to distribute the gifts and enabling them to buy supplies in bulk. The hope is that someone will offer a warehouse or enough money to rent one, because the donations, small-scale fundraisers and occasional grants won’t cover the additional expense. “This is really a grassroots operation,” Hornung said. “What goes in determines what goes out.” The cluttered office has stacks of crayons, markers, journals, books, beads, toys, glitter and all sorts of other supplies that hospitals can’t always provide. Hornung hopes she can give out more. “I just kept thinking how happy Caitlin was if she just had pointed crayons and a coloring book,” she said.