By Kayla Anderson
Last year around Christmas, Sparks High School student Jonah Howell was taken into the ER at Renown Health because he was showing signs of jaundice. The shocking result was that he had been diagnosed with leukemia. Right in the middle of the holidays, Howell spent several weeks in the PICU watching TV, playing video games, and being bored yet fortunately able to have his family and friends around him.
However, this year is a little different with the COVID-19 pandemic causing kids who are spending the holidays in the hospital to not be so lucky. Many hospitals aren’t allowing visitors right now, and kids who check into the Renown Children’s Hospital can only have one parent come and see them.
When talking to his brother Ben Hollinger on the phone a few weeks ago, Howell was telling him that this year will be better because he’ll be able to be home for Christmas. Hollinger asked how kids stuck in the hospital this year would get Christmas and thus the idea to decorate their rooms was born. Instead of just giving kids presents, how about they give them Christmas trees and gingerbread house kits first?
“I added the gingerbread houses because it’s a tradition of ours every year,” says Amy Howell, Jonah’s mother. Amy started looking around on the internet and saw that Target had a lot of the holiday items they were looking for and launched a gift registry. Next, Amy reached out to her Ward I representative Donald Abbott to help spread the word.
“Within three weeks all 50 Christmas Care Packages were filled. It was exciting; at first, we did 24-26 trees and then took pictures and shared it, and then the rest of them were donated right away. It’s so neat to see the community come together, it makes your heart full,” says Sparks City Councilmember Donald Abbott.
Amy confirms that they got their first 15 trees donated right away and once Renown Health and Abbott started sharing it, everything on the registry had been claimed the next day.
“There are 40 rooms in the pediatric ICU and for Christmas last year they were pretty full,” Amy says. “We were so shocked at how quick it all happened,” she adds.
“We had the goal of getting 50 trees and 50 gingerbread house kits hoping that they’d have too many rather than not enough for every kid,” Abbott says.
Now that the Howells have seen the success of the fundraiser, they are hoping that Renown will share photos of the kids enjoying their Christmas to help build momentum for next year. Jonah also recently submitted his “I Believe” speech for his Sparks High English class that addresses the drive:
“I believe that all children in hospitals deserve their Christmas because one year ago I was a child robbed of my Christmas, robbed of my memories, robbed of a child’s joy of the season.
…I believe with Christmas one day away I knew I deserved to be with my mom, dad, and pets, at home sitting in my living room with a Christmas tree and all the presents…I was stuck in a sterile room with no cheer at all.
…I believe because one year ago I was sitting in a bed with no good food in sight, no ability to move with tubes mixed in with wires all hooked to me, less of a child during Christmas but a prisoner with two meals a day and tiny snacks at my request. It felt as if I had to ask for every breath, every move, and every thought.
…I believe no child should go without Christmas, it’s because of this that I made it my action to make a child’s holiday in the hospital a little brighter.”
“I think it was really smart of him (Jonah) to think outside the box by thinking about making the rooms look like Christmas rather than just giving them toys,” Amy says.
“I know I would’ve never thought to do something like this at 17 years old. This is a weird year already with COVID-19 and there aren’t really any visitors at the hospital, so this is a big deal, especially when it’s coming from a 17-year-old kid who spent his last Christmas in the hospital and wanted to make sure that this year kids had a bit more holiday cheer,” Donald says.
In fact, even though all of the kids’ rooms are decorated at Renown, donations are continuing to filter in. Amy assures that they will go to a good home as there are other shelters who could use decorated rooms.
The “Adopt a Sparks High School Family” Christmas Toy/Clothing Drive is also going on now. Hosted by the SHS Alumni Association, The Nava Foundation, and other sponsors, people can drop off new unwrapped toys for kids ages five and up along with gift cards for teens ages 14-18 at the Engine 8 Urban Winery, Lake Bar & Grill, Mari Chuy’s Mexican Kitchen, and Sparks & Smoke BBQ through December 22.