Pia Phillips was 14 years old when she first underwent chemo for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2014. She remembers sitting in a Children’s Hospital room surrounded by four blankets, 10 stuffed animals and five coloring books. She decided to take a walk, and noticed another young cancer patient across the hall.
“The room was dark, he looked my age and had no one there,” she said.
She found a basket and filled it with an extra blanket, a stuffed owl and a coloring book, and asked a nurse to deliver it to the boy.
“She said he just glowed up,” she said.
Pia and her best friend Abbie Nelson are now giving away blankets and other comfort items on a larger scale. As part of PAB’S PACKS (P is for Pia, AB is for Abbie) they distributed 1,000 backpacks last year at children’s hospitals and camps for chronically ill children. Under a new partnership with Love Your Melon, they plan to give away 1,500 backpacks in 2017.
Pia and Abbie have been best friends since age four. Both understand what it’s like to be a kid in a hospital. Abbie was diagnosed in 2013 with Type I diabetes at age 13. The following year, Pia was diagnosed at age 14 with Stage 2A Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Throughout their hospitalizations, they noticed that while lots of toys are available for little kids, there are fewer giveaways of interest to teenagers.
“We had moments where we felt lonely, and we had moments where we were nervous and scared and didn’t know what was going to happen next,” Abbie said. “I think everyone goes through that no matter if they have support or not. … We wanted to help kids realize that they’re not alone.”
Abbie’s mom, Martha Dayton, said that for many children with lengthy hospital stays, parents must work throughout the hospitalization to cover the health care costs.
“I think that’s part of what they were noticing too, is during the day these kids are all by themselves,” she said.
The girls stuff backpacks with heart-shaped stress balls (a favorite of Pia’s), lip balm, lotion, blankets and a stuffed penguin called Pabby that’s available to young siblings as well. They also include a notebook — Abbie always kept a notebook with questions for her doctor. During packing events, kids and workers write notes to the children.
“They’re really fun to open when you’re sitting in a hospital room,” Abbie said.
She said they’re taking the program a step further by providing an avenue for chronically ill teens to support each other. Five kids ages 11-18 who previously received backpacks help distribute the packs.
“A lot of times, we’re the first [chronically ill] kid that they’ve met,” she said.
Backpack recipient Natalie Tryon loved her pack so much she started “Blessings for the Blank,” which gives blankets, games, pajamas and Barbies to kids at Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines. She provided gifts for 600 kids last year, and plans to reach more than 1,000 this year.
Abbie will live with diabetes the rest of her life, but she said PAB’S PACKS helped her find good in the experience.
“To realize that two teenage girls can do it together is super fun too,” she said.
Pia is in remission and said she’s feeling great.
“A lot of people say the kids probably feel so amazing after they get a pack, but in reality we benefit just as much,” she said. “After a handout — I can’t even describe it. You feel so good with yourself, just happy, filled up with happiness.”