A child sits on a hospital bed, away from home, sick and stressed. Someone gives her a bright, hand-colored bag holding Play–Doh, crayons and craft supplies. She smiles.
That’s the goal of Caitlin’s Smiles—to provide comfort and plenty of smiles to chronically ill children. Located on N. 6th Street in Harrisburg, the organization and its army of volunteers create and distribute bags of craft supplies to children in more than 70 hospitals, from New York to South Carolina.
Among the rustling of Ziploc bags, the measuring of yarn and the counting of pom-poms, students from SciTech High School recently discussed their monthly experience volunteering at the facility.
“I’m a creative person, so this type of thing I like to do,” said Arianna Joseph. “And this is for kids who need supportive cards and crafts. To put a smile on their face.”
Caitlin’s Smiles founder Cheryl Hornung is familiar with having a sick child. Her daughter Caitlin, the organization’s namesake, fought cancer for three years, ultimately succumbing to the disease at 8 years old. During her numerous hospitalizations and surgeries, Caitlin found distraction in her arts and crafts.
Hornung said that, whenever Caitlin entered the hospital, she would dig into her backpack and make beaded necklaces and draw pictures, much of which she shared with the staff.
“She was an art machine,” Hornung said. “We always kept a backpack of art supplies and snacks in the car, because we never knew.”
After Caitlin’s passing, Hornung volunteered at a number of children’s charities but none seemed just right. Since arts and crafts helped Caitlin and her family through the tough times, the creation of Caitlin’s Smiles seemed natural. It also solved a problem.
At many hospitals, children are prevented from going to playrooms during quiet times or are confined to their beds because of their illnesses. Caitlin’s Smiles’ “Bags of Smiles” supplement what the hospitals offer and allow children to fill time when they are hospitalized.
Also, parents don’t always have the time to stop and pack a bag of toys for their kids when they experience an emergency. They are lucky, said Hornung, just to get clothes packed.
“It takes the pressure off the families, if we have it in the hospital already,” she said.
Hospital staff say that giving out “Bags of Smiles” is like playing Santa Claus. Marcella Iqbal, a clinical assistant at UPMC Pinnacle in Harrisburg, always lets Hornung know when the hospital runs low.
“Children are nervous and scared, and we try to have a Caitlin’s Smiles bag on the bed when they come in,” she said. “Quite often, they’ll get the Caitlin’s Smiles bag and say, ‘My class helped make them.’”
Volunteers of all ages and abilities are welcome at Caitlin’s Smiles. Last year, volunteers spent 22, 000 hours helping, and the organization has 5,000 people on its volunteer rolls.
“It’s just as important to volunteers to know they are helping someone, especially the special needs groups,” Hornung said. “They might not have that opportunity elsewhere.”
Jo Horanic coordinates the school and special needs groups that work at Caitlin’s Smiles. Her connection to the organization is twofold. She loves crafts and kids, and she lost her husband to cancer, an illness that many Bags of Smiles recipients are fighting.
“Rather than be the recipient, they have the chance to give back,” she said of the special-needs volunteers.
Hornung said that, in the early days of Caitlin’s Smiles, it was about the end result—children receiving crafts. That vision has morphed into something even greater, giving volunteers a sense of purpose.
Back in the workroom, with walls adorned with butterflies, crayons and castle decals listing sponsor and partner organizations, Deonna Winston wrapped yarn and chatted with Horanic.
A SciTech student, she admitted that, when she first began volunteering, her heart wasn’t fully in it, but that changed when she “understood the impact of it on the kids.”
When asked how Caitlin would feel about what she’s doing, Hornung replied, “She would love it, the new pointy crayons… the piles of beads.”
Indeed, Caitlin’s Smiles has given Hornung a hopeful focus, despite her family’s own sorrow.
“Every day, we hear wonderful stories and see lots of smiles,” she said.
Caitlin’s Smiles is located at 3303 N. 6th St., Harrisburg. For more information, including volunteer opportunities, visit www.caitlins-smiles.org.