Spreading a message of hope, one bag at a time

by Kipaya Kapiga on May 6, 2013


Conor and Emi

The staff at Boston Children’s Hospital works very hard to ensure that every procedure, test and patient visit runs according to plan. But last week the hospital broke from tradition and embraced the element of surprise when some patients received an unexpected gift of toy bags signed by current and retired New England Patriots players, including Zoltan Mesko and Joe Andruzzi.

The bags, which will be the first of four quarterly donations, come courtesy of the Messages of Hope Foundation, a nonprofit that donates thousands of Happy Hope bags to children undergoing treatment in various children’s hospitals across the United States. The foundation was begun by Emi Burke, the mother of a Boston Children’s patient, who was inspired to help pediatric patients all over the country.

Burke’s son, Conor, is treated at Boston Children’s for developmental delays and epilepsy. During one hospital stay, she noticed a few patients who didn’t seem to have any distractions to help them pass the time. When Burke asked a nurse why this might be the case, she was told that many times when parents are arranging for a hospital stay, they simply forget to bring toys or items to entertain and occupy their child. For other families, a “box of crayons seems like a luxury item,” Burke says.

Knowing she had an opportunity to take action, Burke set about designing and distributing flyers, asking for donations of toys and other items for children in the hospital. The flyers were then handed out to families through a partnership with local YMCAs. Soon after the flyers were sent out, her efforts expanded to collection bins at schools and offices, which were adorned with simple requests for donations of playful items such as crayons, coloring books, stickers, Play-Doh, iTunes gift cards and Lego sets.

Child Life specialists organize activities to encourage happy, healthy development in the medical setting.

The response, Burke says, was amazing. In the span of three short weeks, Messages of Hope received more than 11,000 donations from across the state and region, including personal notes from children, some who were patients.

Though there was much work involved with creating and organizing the donation drive, Burke said her family’s relationship with Boston Children’s made the process a labor of love. “Conor has received such phenomenal care at Boston Children’s,” she says. “It was the first place he was seen as a person and not as a case number. That meant so much to us.”

Complications with his medical conditions have prevented Conor from sitting, speaking or walking for most if his life. But in 2009, he underwent stem cell infusion at Boston Children’s, which is allowing him to walk for the very first time in his life.

But Connor isn’t one to slow down after one great achievement. This May, he won’t just be walking, he’ll be running, as part of an upcoming charity race. Not only that, he’ll be doing it alongside Triathlon Hall of Fame inductee Dick Hoyt. “Conor has remained a beacon of hope for our family,” says his mother. “Reminding us to never give up and always find a way to encourage others.”

The road ahead

Like Conor, Messages of Hope has no plans to slow its progress. Over the course of the year, the foundation will continue to donate bags to Boston Children’s Child Life specialists, who will then distribute them to patient families.

Maintaining a close relationship with patients and their families is crucial for the Child Life team, which uses many different therapeutic and play-based methods to ensure children stay on track developmentally and socially during their hospitalization. The dedicated staff of 34 organizes countless activities and events to normalize patients’ hospital experience and encourage happy, healthy development in the medical setting.

They coordinate everything from movie nights and story hours, and often accompany children to and from treatment, as well as help them cope with the recovery process. But their work isn’t limited to patients—the team also works closely with patients’ family members to ensure everyone is well-supported during their time at Boston Children’s.

“When a child enters treatment the entire family is affected,” says the director of Child Life Services, Beth Donegan Driscoll, MS, CCLS. “It’s our job to help them all.”

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