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New name, same mission

Group helps bring smiles to children in hospital via pillowcases

By: Thomas Franz | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published September 16, 2015

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MACOMB TOWNSHIP — Over the past eight years, Sue Ellen Kosmas has worked to make a simple gesture improve the days of children who are staying in local hospitals because of a life-changing illness.

Kosmas, a Macomb Township resident, began a metro Detroit chapter for ConKerr Cancer eight years ago. The organization was recently renamed Ryan’s Case for Smiles, but its mission remains the same: “Help kids feel better to heal better.”

The group accomplishes this primarily by helping children cope with illness by delivering pillowcases during hospital stays.

Since it was founded in 2002 by Cindy Kerr, the national organization has delivered more than a million pillowcases to hospitals across the country.

Kosmas’ involvement with the program began when she saw Kerr make an appearance on a television show to discuss the organization, and she was immediately intrigued.

After an interview process, Kosmas began the first Detroit chapter for the organization, and over the past eight years, her group, which has grown from a small group of volunteers to 75 people currently, has donated more than 30,000 pillowcases.

On Sept. 12, Kosmas held her sixth annual Miles of Pillowcase Smiles event at Trinity Lutheran Church in Utica. The goal of the event, Kosmas said, was to sew 950 pillowcases that would be delivered for Halloween and Christmas to three local hospitals.

“It’s really a cool thing because this shows the love people have for children,” Kosmas said. “They don’t do it to be notarized, they don’t do it for a thank-you — they just do it for the love of children.”

Kosmas annually holds her event in September because it is Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month. On Sept. 17, Kosmas’ organization will deliver a celebratory pillowcase to Children’s Hospital of Michigan to commemorate the national organization reaching the 1 million mark for cases delivered.

Deanna Scanlon, a child life project specialist with Children’s Hospital, said the pillowcases help break up the monotony of hospital stays for children.

“In the hospital, we have white sheets and white blankets. There are not a lot of fun patterns in those rooms for the kids, so it can really brighten their day. Something as simple as a pillowcase can change their mood,” Scanlon said.

In addition to sewing and delivering pillowcases, Kosmas also spends time with children in the activity center of the hospital to teach them how to sew their own pillowcases.

Scanlon said that by sewing their own pillowcases, children are able to get back an important aspect of their life that they lose while in the hospital.

“Kids in the hospital, they don’t get a lot of choices; they don’t have a lot of control over things that happen. They can’t say when they’ll take their medicine or do an X-ray, but in the activity center when she brings all of her fabrics, they get to choose, and it gives them a sense of control,” Scanlon said.  “A lot of times, kids lose that sense of control in the hospital, so it’s really a nice way to give them a little bit back.”

In addition to Children’s Hospital, Kosmas’ group also works with Beaumont Hospital and St. John Hospital. At Children’s, Kosmas’ group sews enough pillowcases to donate weekly to a wing that typically holds 40 children who are fighting cancer or other illnesses.

“There’s never a shortage of sick children, unfortunately. Because we’ve expanded to children with life-changing illness, there’s even a bigger need now,” Kosmas said.

While Kerr began the national organization after sewing pillowcases for her son while he was battling cancer, Kosmas said she and many of her volunteers  do not have any personal connection to pediatric cancer.

“A lot of people just want to volunteer, and they have a love for children,” Kosmas said. “I get thank-yous that the pillowcase doesn’t just affect the child receiving them, but also the family of the child, because it brings such comfort to the child that it in turn brings comfort to the family.”

Throughout her eight years of running the organization, Kosmas said she’s learned most about the spirit of children while battling illness.

“Their spirit, they have such a beautiful spirit about them. Some of these children have never had a day of good health, and all they know is sickness,” Kosmas said. “I’ve learned so much from them to appreciate the health of my family.”

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