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Caitlin’s Smiles: Nonprofit Spotlight

Caitlin’s Smiles: Nonprofit Spotlight

January 11, 2024 by Giving Assistant Editorial Team

When times are scary, uncertain, challenging, and even painful for children and their families, one nonprofit shows up with a “Bag of Smiles,” hand-assembled just for them.

Today, Giving Assistant is shining a light on Caitlin’s Smiles, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit inspired by a little girl who, throughout a 3 ½-year-long battle with brain cancer, found joy in creating art.

❤️Jump to the bottom for a touching message from Caitlin’s Smiles in honor of National Volunteer Month 2020.

Meet Our Nonprofit Spotlight: Caitlin’s Smiles

What is Caitlin’s Smiles? 

Caitlin’s Smiles is a nonprofit that delivers hand-made kits (called “Bags of Smiles” or “coping kits”) packed with toys, art supplies, craft projects, and more to children facing life-threatening illnesses, and, on occasion, other life-altering events like natural disasters. The nonprofit also delivers kits to the families of these children that include helpful essentials like gas and grocery cards.

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Headquartered in Pennsylvania, Caitlin’s Smiles was founded in 2004 by Cheryl Hornung, whose daughter Caitlin battled brain cancer for 3 ½ years. Caitlin passed away in 2000, a few days before her 8th birthday. Throughout her battle, Caitlin found happiness and comfort through art.

Cheryl wanted other sick children to experience the same healing joy Caitlin found in art. She began Caitlin’s Smiles as a way for her daughter’s spirit—and smiles—to live on in the lives of other children and families. 

What Does Caitlin’s Smiles Do?

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Caitlin’s Smiles’ volunteer teams collect art supplies, toys, craft projects, and more, packs them into individual bags, and then delivers the bags to children (mostly in hospitals). The treats inside give children something comforting, therapeutic, and fun to do while enduring long hospitalizations and medical treatments, or overcoming other life-altering events. 

In 2019, Caitlin’s Smiles delivered “12,485 Bags of Smiles, 149,386 craft kits, 19,867 Coping Kits, and 2,836 toys” to nearly 180 hospitals in 13 states.

How to Volunteer With Caitlin’s Smiles

  1. Find volunteer opportunities on Caitlin’s Smiles volunteer page: volunteers are needed for everything from packing bags in the nonprofit’s warehouse, to delivering bags to hospitals, to administrative work like answering phones.
  2. People (as well as companies and organizations looking for group volunteer opportunities) can send inquiries or sign up to volunteer on their sign-up page. For other questions, visit their contact page.

How to Volunteer From Home With Caitlin’s Smiles

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Many volunteer opportunities on the nonprofit’s volunteer page can be done from home, such as sewing tote bags, or purchasing supplies or books online. 

Interested volunteers might also be able to get creative, such as hosting supply drives online, where you create an online group (ie., on Facebook), set a goal, and invite friends and family to purchase supplies for Caitlin’s Smiles online to be shipped to their headquarters.

Participants can use Giving Assistant’s browser extension to make these purchases, and setting their cash back donation amount to 100% for Caitlin’s Smiles. That way, the nonprofit will raise donations on top of receiving supplies! 

(Remember: Every dime of cash back you donate goes to the nonprofit—Giving Assistant takes zero fees, ever.)

How to Donate to Caitlin’s Smiles

  1. Donate to Caitlin’s Smiles directly on their website. (PayPal accepted.)
  2. Purchase books, puzzles, and supplies for them. (Tip: Purchase books from Scholastic using Giving Assistant and donate up to 6% cash back to Caitlin’s Smiles as of April 2020.)
  3. Select Caitlin’s Smiles as your nonprofit when shopping on Giving Assistant
  4. Use Giving Assistant to shop online for anything, and donate any percentage of your cash back earnings to Caitlin’s smiles.

National Volunteer Month 2020: A Message From Caitlin’s Smiles

In April 2020, for National Volunteer Month, we selected Caitlin’s Smiles as our nonprofit spotlight for the month, inspired by a beautiful letter they sent to us where they sang the praises of their beloved volunteers. (Read more amazing stories from all 12 nonprofits we celebrated this month!)

We couldn’t publish this post without also sharing their letter. 

In honor of Caitlin’s Smiles’ volunteers—and in honor of nonprofit volunteers around the world—here is that letter in its entirety.

Volunteers are the story of Caitlin’s Smiles. They are everything to us.

First, there are our regulars.

They give hundreds of hours every year to assemble our craft kits and design cards of encouragement. Many of them lead sessions for the public to do the same. At home and at our Harrisburg, Pa., headquarters, they sew, decorate and fill our Bags of Smiles and Coping Kits. Others are receptionists, tidy our warehouse and make deliveries to hospitals.

Then, there are those from the community who join our two-hour evening and Saturday sessions to assemble kits and make cards. During the day, school and church groups, employees from companies small and large (including Amazon, Kohl’s, Highmark, AAA and FedEx) and many more fill our hours at Smiles Central, happily pitching in to bring smiles to our hospitalized children.

Often joining them are groups of special-needs students and adults, who not only brighten our kids’ days but gain a sense of pride from helping others.

But most touching are our young volunteers who once were hospitalized and received Bags of Smiles and now return with their families “to give back” to others.

Caitlin’s Smiles donates Bags of Smiles, Coping Kits and craft kits to hospitalized youths facing chronic and life-threatening illnesses. In 2019, we reached nearly 180 hospitals and Ronald McDonald Houses in 13 states and the District of Columbia. We gave 12,485 Bags of Smiles, 149,386 craft kits, 19,867 Coping Kits and 2,836 toys.

In times of disaster, we go further. Amid the 2018 floods, we sent kits to the Carolinas, Florida and Virginia. Included in our 2019 figures were nearly 1,200 Bags and kits to storm-battered Ohio, Iowa, Nebraska and Texas. Recently, we answered a call for craft kits from a New York City hospital to help during the pandemic.

So, what are Bags of Smiles? They’re bags decorated by volunteers and filled with a craft kit, coloring book, crayons, a book, a journal for writing, Play-Doh, a toy, stickers and a card of encouragement. Coping Kits, scaled-down versions of them, go to emergency rooms and outpatients. Craft kits have the ingredients for items including bracelets, necklaces, bookmarks and decorative keychains.

Caitlin’s Smiles was founded in 2004 by Cheryl Hornung as a tribute to her daughter, Caitlin, who battled a brain tumor for 3½ years before she passed away days before her eighth birthday. Caitlin kept a positive attitude by finding joy in creating art. She had a backpack full of arts and crafts supplies and Play-Doh to give necklace and bracelet kits and her colored pictures to friends, family and hospital staffs.

Cheryl’s idea was to provide our items to bring hope and smiles to ill youths by encouraging them to focus on creative activities that boost their confidence and sense of self-worth. She had no idea what a service it would become.

In February, shortly before our 16th anniversary, Caitlin Smiles learned we have reached more than 2 million youths up to high school age with these gifts.

Our army of volunteers, in addition to countless donors of materials and money, has made all of it happen. That army continues to grow from coast to coast.

In 2019, Caitlin’s Smiles logged 21,683 volunteer hours. Those are only the hours we know about.

They don’t count the gift-bearing volunteers who just show up. A 7-year-old boy brings 100 cans of Play-Doh that he asked for in lieu of gifts at his birthday party. An artist brings dozens of Bags of Smiles decorated with her beautiful works. Girl Scout troops, students, more groups, churches and friends unload supplies, craft kits and cards from drives they organize on their own. Area colleges hold craft nights. Many volunteers go to our website (www.caitlins-smiles.org), follow our directions and make items to contribute from home. These are only a few.

Those hours also don’t encompass the unexpected packages of kits, cards, Play-Doh and other supplies delivered by mail and FedEx every week. They come from volunteers we don’t even know from all over America. Some come anonymously — no name, no return address.

In a recent phone call from California, a lady declined to identify herself, but said: “A bunch of us are sitting in our office. We’ve been in a power failure for three hours. So we’ve made cards for Caitlin’s Smiles. We’re sending them to you.”

This is why volunteers, along with our donors, are the lifeblood of Caitlin’s Smiles.

They leave us with just one problem: There aren’t enough words to express our gratitude for all they have done and will do for our kids.

Skip Wachter
Volunteers coordinator