Where it all began
It was winter of my senior year when I started "Carissa's Wish." I didn’t plan to start it. It just kind of happened... It started as an assignment for speech class. It was probably about January 1999 when my speech teacher assigned us a ’demonstration speech.’ We had to come up with a topic on ’how to do’ something. Some of my classmates were demonstrating how to cook something, others something sports related. Of course, being the type of person I was, I wanted to do something original. Something with more meaning then just baking cookies (not that I could cook), or demonstrating how to make a ’lay-up’ in basketball, or a wrestling move. I was making a real ‘Madeline hat’ for Carissa one night out of yellow fabric with a black bow when the idea struck.- Why don’t I go buy more fabric and demonstrate ‘how to make a hat’- then donate the hats to other cancer patients by giving them to the local Make-A-Wish Foundation when I was done with the speech. The speech had to be 12- 15 minutes in length. I figured that if I made about a dozen hats in different stages then I’d have ‘models of each step’ in the process of making a hat. So I went to the store and bought all different types of cool ‘kiddy prints’ and solid colors to make the hats. Then went to work sewing the hats, leaving each one off at a different stage to be able to use it for demonstrating the steps.
well, when I bought the fabric to make the hats, I based the yardage off of how much the back of the pattern said I needed. But I discovered after bringing it home that if I turned the pattern pieces slightly I could get twice as many hats. So I figured what the heck, I’ll make 12 finished hats as completed models and then have 12 hats showing the stages... It ended up that I never had to do the speech. The week before it was due, my pregnant speech teacher was put on bed rest. So I had no formal speech teacher for the rest of the year. (I went to private school and they had no one else to teach speech)...
Instead, I finished all the girls hats. It was a lot of fun. But when they were done, I got to thinking “um, what about the little boys with cancer?” So... I went to the store, got more fabric and made a dozen and a half ‘bucket hats’ in all sizes for the boys. Some were denim, others were corduroy, knit or plain cotton.
When all the hats were complete, I brought them to the local Make-A-Wish Foundation. They didn’t last very long there. All the hats quickly found a bald little head to belong to. Then the foundation called me several times saying, “do you mind making a hat for a ___-year-old patient? ____ blank is his/her favorite color.
In the meantime, I was busy balancing my time between making hats, working 2 jobs and finishing my senior year. It was also around this time that we found out that Carissa was ‘terminally ill.’
I decided that it was more important to spend time with Carissa, and that I could worry about making hats for other kids later on, but all summer Carissa had told me over and over, "I want you to make hats for all of the other kids and tell them about God so they can go to heaven too." Every time we went to a fabric store, Carissa would point out fabric that she thought her friends would like as hats. The night before she died we talked for about 20 minutes. And one of the last things she said to me was 'you didn't forget about the hats for the other sick kids, did you?' I told her I didn't forget.
And I didn't. Three months after she died, I went to the fabric store and got enough fabric for another 30 hats (including some of the fabrics she pointed out to me several months prior). I got to work sewing. Not long after, her mother and I decided to register as a Non-profit organization. So at age 18 I was running a non-profit out of my bedroom. The first name of the organization we picked caused confusion because there were 2 other states with non-profits registered under the same name, so we changed our name to Carissa's Wish.
It started first as strictly hats for cancer kids, but over that year (2000) we started reaching out to other kids including AIDS patients, cardiology patients, neurology patients, children in group homes, and orphans.
Summer 2000 I traveled on a mission team to Mexico. Before the trip I collected small toys to bring over to the street kids and orphans we would work with there.
When I got home from Mexico I moved in with a kind lady I had met who offered to let me stay with her since I had no place to live. She was cool with my non-profit so she didn't mind me using my bedroom to run it out of. She had a 12-year-old daughter who helped me with many projects as well as a 16-year-old exchange student from Germany.
That fall, once a month we went to a childrens hospital on a Sunday and hosted parties in the play rooms. We made goody bags for the patients as well as the patients siblings (siblings are often left out when a kid is sick). We would bring hats for the cancer patients as well. Local businesses would donate baked goods for the party, and for the Halloween party the local hallmark donated 12 Halloween stuffed animals. (the owners daughter had leukemia and I had made a special trip to the hospital she was in to visit her).
Below are pictures of some of the cancer patients at our "Harvest Party" in October 2000. The 3-year old in the middle picture was so excided about her new hat that she took off on the elevator to visit another floor and show the cardiology nurses her new hat! (fortunately they quickly figured out what floor she ventured off from by her bald head and she was returned to the floor quickly!) The Halloween hats were a big hit!
Here is a picture of the playroom at one of the hospitals decorated for a Veggie Tales theme party.
In November 2000 we were trying to plan what theme we should do for December. We knew most of the hospitals would be overcrowded with volunteers for the month so we decided to give December a different twist. Our funds were high from donations, so I got the 2 teens I lived with to help me make 150 stocking out of fleece and collect donations to stuff them. For a month and a half we ran all over the state collecting donations from businesses. Many McDonalds Donated cases and cases of happy meal toys, we placed donation boxes at 8 locations in 3 different counties to collect hats and donated new toys, activity sets, beanie babies, blankets and other gifts to bring to the hospitals. Several toy stores donated gift certificates so we could pick out puzzles, games, books, and activity kits to bring to the hospital. Before I knew it, my large bedroom was piles floor to ceiling with toys, games, stocking stuffers, and hats…
Early December all the stocking stuffers had to move. I had no way to walk across my bedroom. So the lady I lived with let me store them in her 2nd living room (she had a big house). Ooops…. Before I knew it, the living room was also overflowing in donations. I thought she was going to kill me! She kept saying, "Honey, Christmas is 3 weeks away. Are these really gunna sit here for 3 more WEEKS? Well, we couldn't make Christmas come sooner, so more stuff got relocated to the extra bay in the garage…
Two weeks before Christmas the statewide newspaper came to interview the 12-year old and me. The news reporter's eyes got big when I pointed out all the stuff that was part of the donations… needless to say, The article made the front page of the Sunday paper.
We had so much stuff I couldn't simply drop it all off at one hospital, so I ended up taking a road trip the week of Christmas. I visited 8 children's hospitals/pediatric units in 5 different states- including 3 Christmas day. By the day after Christmas I packed my mid-sized car (including a storage container on the roof) and took off to visit the last 2 states. I think I put a total of 1400 miles on my car in 10 days traveling to all the hospitals. At the end of that week I made a visit to a group home where I dropped off all the remaining toys for those kids. (I still has plent of donations at my house to last for a few more months.
January 2001 I made my last major trips to 3 hospitals with more donations. In February 2001 I was in a car accident and broke my neck in 2 places and ended up with traumatic brain injury and seizures. I haven't been able to really pick up the non-profit since (especially since I can no longer drive due to my injuries). But I've done little things for individual kids since. Someone donated 2 American Girl Dolls, and I have 4 other 18" dolls similar to the American girl dolls someone purchased at Target for me. So I've worked on making complete wardrobes for the dolls over the past 2 years. (my attention span is now too short due to my brain injury to it down and sew for hours like I could once do). I'm saving those dolls for a few 'special' little girls. I'm not sure yet who they will go to, but I know I'll find a special home for them someday.
I've made several hats as well, and have about 15 to finish, but I don't have a sewing machine (I always borrowed other peoples for all the projects). But when I get housing I plan to start working on hats and other projects- especially since I currently have so many contacts with cancer patients. I also wanna find the socks to make 'sock monkeys' out of. They would be a fun gift for a little boy or a little girl in a hospital. And they are easy to make (they can be made without a sewing machine). I'll probably re-register in the state I'm in now as a non-profit again so people can donate and use it as a tax write-off.
Starting a Non-Profit
Starting a non-profit organization is hard work. You have to deal with the IRS, have a board of directors, follow state guidelines, and be able to write well. I spent countless hours writing letters requesting donations from businesses, making newsletters, making arrangements with hospitals, and running errands like trips to Kinko's, etc. It is very time consuming. Fortunately I had the time in 2000. I was only working part time, living rent-free in exchange for services, and in physical therapy after a car accident in August 2000. It's difficult to run a non-profit alone. But if you have a group of friends to share responsibilities with it makes it easier. I got a youth group at a local church involved. Some of them would tag along monthly to the hospitals with me, they helped stuff the 150 stockings, and came shopping to pick out the toys and activities we would spend the gift certificates on. I wanted to involve other youth as much as possible.