ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – Rene Porter has a simple wish for Christmas: that every sick child spending the holidays in a hospital has a room decked out with a small Christmas tree, fake snow, a string of lights, stockings or anything else to bring them the season’s joy.
“A hospital can be a lonely and scary place for a child,” said Porter, 36. “Let’s do something to make it better.”
So last year the Winter Garden mother set out to donate at least one bag full of holiday decorations to a Central Florida hospital so that a child’s family can adorn a hospital room with holiday cheer. Now, her idea has ballooned into hundreds of bags from around the country being donated to Porter.
Since Thanksgiving Day, Porter and her small army of volunteers have dropped off more than 300 donated decoration bags to 11 hospitals in six other cities besides Orlando – Hollywood, Fla.; Houston; Denver; New Orleans; San Antonio; and Albany, N.Y.
“It has just been awesome,” Porter said as she pulled donated bags from a van in front of Florida Hospital for Children in Orlando. She and a friend then hauled the bags into the hospital’s lobby and up the elevator to the fifth floor, where hospital staffers will deliver the bags to children’s rooms.
She hopes to soon turn the project into a nonprofit organization.
“Just by word of mouth and social media, it has created a domino effect,” Porter said. “I’ve just been so humbled by this.”
Debbie Spencer, a child life specialist at Florida Hospital, said the unique program gives a sick child a healthy lift during the holidays.
“It provides a sense of normalcy” for kids and their families, she said. “It gives them a feeling that they can also celebrate Christmas. . But it also helps them in knowing that there are people out there in the community that are thinking about them.”
It encourages a sick child to get out of a hospital bed and work on something as simple as decorating a room, thereby temporarily forgetting about the illness, Spencer said.
It works, according to a young Tampa mother whose 4-year-old daughter has spent the past two months at Florida Hospital because of a rare medical condition.
Last week, her family received one of Porter’s holiday bags filled with a small artificial tree, a banner, window decorations, tinsel and fake snow. They quickly got busy decorating their hospital room. She said her daughter’s face lit up – it was the first time in a long time she’d seen her so happy.
Porter said the idea was sparked about five years ago at Christmastime when she visited a friend’s 1-year-old son, Greyson, at Arnold Palmer Hospital in Orlando. She noticed how her friend had decorated her son’s hospital room, but many of the other children’s rooms lacked the holiday cheer. Greyson died two months later.
Then last year “I thought: ‘Let’s do something and hope it makes just a small difference to a family and child’s life during the holidays,” Porter said. “Because this could happen to any parent or any family.”
She enlisted the help of her husband, Jeremy, 36, and their three young children, ages 8, 5 and 3. Porter also set up a Facebook page – in honor of Greyson – to provide information on where people can donate.
“I became more and more blown away by the number of donations we started receiving,” said Porter, who calls her effort The Greyson Project.
Each of the bags contains a small artificial tree and several ornaments. Donors also add other items, including lights, stockings, window ornaments and letter-to-Santa writing kits.
Porter then drops off the bag donations at hospitals after contacting staff. She never meets the families or sees them receiving the bags.
On a recent morning, Porter’s friend Renee Lowe, 43, of Orlando, helped deliver holiday bags.
“It’s a super simple thing to do – fill a bag with decorations,” Lowe said. “But it makes such a big difference to a child and their family.”