Sharing Smiles

August 14, 2009

August 14, 2009 – When Mason Koppenhaver had a gastric tube inserted, he was confined to his hospital bed. The brightest spot in each day came from a book of puzzles in a Caitlin’s Smiles gift bag.

“That was the most awesome thing because he looked forward to doing a different puzzle every day,” said his mom, Heidi Koppenhaver of Berrysburg. “Something so simple, but it was new to him, and it took his mind off things.”

Experts and parents such as Koppenhaver, whose 9-year-old son has had about 10 surgeries to treat a mysterious autoimmune condition, agree that activities and crafts help hospitalized children cope with treatment, develop normally, and experience routine in their disrupted lives. Cheryl Hornung of Middle Paxton Twp. founded Caitlin’s Smiles in 2004, to honor her 8-year-old daughter who died from a brain tumor in 2000 and endured years of treatments with help from craft projects.

From Caitlin’s Smiles’ colorful and organized new space on Sixth Street, Susquehanna Twp., volunteers prepare age- and gender-appropriate activity bags and craft kits for about 70,000 hospitalized children and teens a year, Hornung said.

“Caitlin was into anything with glitter and glue and crayons,” Hornung said. “In the hospital, it kept her occupied. We learned pretty quickly that healing is a mental process. Chemo and all the treatment wasn’t that big a deal if she could color and hand out pictures.”

Hospitalization can slow a child’s developmental progress, said Debbie Waltermire of New Freedom, York County, an occupational therapy lecturer at Elizabethtown College.

“As the child’s main occupation, they need to play, and Caitlin’s Smiles is trying to give a normal play experience,” Waltermire said. “Arts and crafts is a lot of what they do to develop those fine motor skills and visual skills.”

Waltermire also speaks from personal experience because her son, now 9, was hospitalized as an infant and at age 7 for heart surgery.

“My gosh, they have something to do to pass the time,” she said. “There’s only so many movies and videos you can watch.”