Making a Difference – Part 2

Caitlin’s Smiles

The loss of a loved one never sits well, but the loss of a child is every parent’s worst fear. For one mother who has endured this painful loss, what has turned out to be her greatest tragedy has led to one of her greatest triumphs – putting smiles on the faces of unwell children.

Cheryl Hornung is the founder of Caitlin’s Smiles. The organization was founded in honor of Caitlin, Hornung’s first-born child, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor at the age of 4. She spent the next three and a half years battling for her life but unfortunately passed away in 2000, shortly before her 8th birthday.

Caitlin had a love for art, which was one of the things that helped her through her fight with cancer.

“Every time Caitlin went to the hospital, I tried to keep a backpack filled with arts and crafts things,” explains Hornung. “We started carrying the backpack because with her surgeries and chemo treatments, she might sleep during the day and be up all night when playrooms were closed or it was quiet time.”

After Caitlin passed, Hornung had the idea of making arts and crafts bags for children who are battling severe illnesses.

The main service of Caitlin’s Smiles is to provide Bags of Smiles, which are decorated bags filled with crayons or markers, a coloring book, journal, book, Play-Doh, two craft kits and a homemade card. They also provide craft kits, which come in nearly 40 different types.

Elise Stroup, 74, has been a volunteer for Caitlin’s Smiles since 2004. This organization means a great deal to her as she too lost a daughter who passed just before her 9th birthday.

Both Stroup and Hornung recall the early days before all the volunteers started working with them and before moving to their current N. 6th Street location in Harrisburg.

“When we first started, we were taking craft kits home to put them together,” remembers Stroup. “And now this organization has grown so big and is still run by almost all volunteers.”

Hornung estimates that they now have nearly 800 volunteers with Caitlin’s Smiles, and this is a good thing for them for the fact that last year alone, there were nearly 13,000 Bags of Smiles handed out as well as a little under 133,000 craft kits. They welcome volunteers of all ages to volunteer and give back, something that not all organizations can offer. From preschool children to special-needs groups and adult day care centers, “everyone volunteers here.”

Beyond the colorful walls, rooms with workstations for volunteers and racks full of arts-and-crafts supplies, the things that mean the most are the photographs – a few of Caitlin herself and some of the first receivers of the Bags of Smiles, showing off their own sparkling, genuine grins from ear to ear.

“This makes me feel wonderful,” says Hornung. “Like floating on clouds. There are some days where I feel like I am working 24/7 and some days where I feel like we don’t have the money or the staff. And then stuff just appears. And we get thank yous and pictures of kids with smiles in the hospitals.”

“When thinking of a sick child in the hospital, who thinks of something for them to occupy their time to make them forget what is wrong and help the day go a little bit better?” asks Stroup. “Caitlin’s Smiles does.”