Toy story: Tucson teens help bring smiles to pint-sized patients

Lucy Bittner & Nikki Johnson

Lucy Bittner & Nikki Johnson

To a child in the hospital a simple toy can make all the difference in their world.  It can help them cope with what’s going on, provide an appropriate distraction, and help them realize that the hospital is not an entirely scary place.  Lucy Bittner and Nikki Johnson know this first-hand.  Both spent time in the hospital when they were younger, and remember the feeling when they had a shiny new toy to play with.  “When a child life specialist brought me a new toy it was the highlight of my day,” said Nikki.  “It really changed my entire perspective of being in the hospital.” 

The girls are now seventh graders at Esperero Canyon Middle School.  The school year is almost over, but they’re still working on a task they received in English class back in September.  The assignment:  brainstorm a community engagement project that could realistically be implemented in the Tucson community and make a positive impact.  They weren’t required to act on it – but rather think about it and eventually do a presentation about it.

With their hospital experiences, a love of children, and parents who work at TMC (Nikki’s mom, Kris, is a Registered Nurse in the TMC Emergency Department; Lucy’s dad, Dan, works in TMC Facilities), creating a project to support Andrea’s Closet was a no-brainer.  “We wanted to do something to make a difference,” said Nikki.  “We knew right away this was it.”

Andrea Brunk 1992-2002

Andrea Brunk
1992-2002

Andrea’s Closet is named for Andrea Brunk, who was only 8 years old when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in Phoenix.  Like most children suffering from such a disease, she dreaded her regular hospital visits.  “Each time we’d go in for a treatment, she would get a sticker, or a beanie baby, or a pencil.  But when she saw the Barbie Dolls her face just lit up.  It completely changed her treatment,” said Traci Brunk, Andrea’s mother. 

After 18 months of treatment, Andrea passed away just days before her tenth birthday. 

Brunk began buying toys by the dozens in order to cope with her grief and honor what her daughter loved to do most – shop.  The Brunk family approached their hospital about building a closet and filling it with toys so that every child can have a place to go to take away their fear…a place where they can have a choice in a situation where they often don’t have any control over what’s happening to their bodies, their medication, or their treatment.  The concept spread to other hospitals, including TMC.

Research about Andrea’s Closet at TMC revealed Lucy and Nikki’s desire to make a difference would in fact do so – in a big way.  “We discovered the toy amount at TMC was depleting.  We loved the idea of doing something to help these children,” said Lucy.   Rather than just write about how this project could help, they decided to actually do it.  Fundraising efforts over the next few months resulted in about $500.  After a quick shopping trip, the girls brought several boxes of toys to TMC around Christmas time.

That was just the start.

They reached out to friends and family members to donate.  “When we explained what we were trying to do, everyone was very eager to help,” said Lucy.  “We received some really generous donations and are so grateful to everyone who supported us.”  They even reached out to their peers, as she explained.  “We organized a little get together with about a dozen of our friends.  We asked them to each bring a small toy to add to our collection.”

A "thank you" in TMC's Pediatric Emergency Department greeted the girls.

A “thank you” in TMC’s Pediatric Emergency Department greeted the girls.

Little by little, the toys added up.  Once again the girls paid a visit to TMC with their moms in tow.  Buried in boxes, they first headed to the closet in TMC’s Pediatric Emergency Department where they received a heartfelt thank you.  Next stop?  The closet in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.  “I think they’ve experienced a few things that makes them realize how fortunate they are.  To be able to help out children is a great focus for them.  We’re really proud of them for making it happen and for persevering for the past nine months,” said Doreen Bittner, Lucy’s mom.  “They’re good kids. They did a great job and we’re very proud of them.  I have no doubt they will continue to do this for the children who come to TMC for treatment,” said Kris Johnson, Nikki’s mom.

Andrea’s Closet has also developed a financial assistance program for families with sick children, and a burial fund for those children who lose their battle against their illness.  For more information about Andrea’s Closet, please click here.

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Tucson Medical Center | 5301 E. Grant Rd. | Tucson, AZ 85712 | (520) 327-5461
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