No one would choose to have their children spend the holidays in a hospital, but for some families, that’s exactly what they have to do. It could be grim, but thanks to Michaels Jewelers and a small army of volunteers, parents with kids in Connecticut Children’s this past holiday season were able to visit the Snowflake Shop and pick out gifts for all their children, without ever leaving the hospital. And that made a world of difference to kids like Austin St. George—and his parents.
A Lengthy Stay
Austin and his brother, Garrett, were born in February 2019 at 25 weeks gestation, and they both started life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Garrett did okay and graduated from the NICU in June, but Austin faced serious challenges. “He had severe bronchopulmonary dysplasia and chronic lung disease,” says his mother, Julie. Surgeons performed a tracheotomy and put in a breathing tube, and Austin moved from the NICU to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, where he remains almost a year later. He still relies on a breathing tube.
With Austin’s long stay in the hospital and Garrett at home, life for Julie and her husband is complicated. “My husband and I are shuttling back and forth every day,” she says. “We’re both working, with me working part-time so I can be home with his brother. It’s hard, but that’s the way it has to be.”
Time for holiday preparations was hard to come by, not to mention time for being together as a couple and being together as a family. And that’s why the Snowflake Shop made such a difference for them.
Snowflake Shop a Gift
Each year, in the days before the holidays, the Family Resource Center at Connecticut Children’s is transformed into a toy store—the Snowflake Shop—with shelves stocked with a wide variety of gifts for kids. Parents with children who will spend holidays in the hospital can come downstairs and pick out gifts not only for the hospitalized child, but also for their child’s siblings. There is no charge for the toys—they are provided through the generosity of donors and sponsors.
This year, the Snowflake Shop’s sponsor was Michaels Jewelers, a family-owned business with stores across Connecticut. They made a very generous donation to support the Snowflake Shop, as part of their broader support for Connecticut Children’s. “My younger brother was treated here,” says DeAnna Syner, marketing director for
Michaels Jewelers. “And I have a 9-month-old child at home, so this is a subject that is close to me now. We’re a family-owned business, and we’re into the family aspect of everything. We appreciate everything Connecticut Children’s is doing. So, it makes sense for us to support it.”
“Families had the opportunity to shop and walk away with wrapped gifts and full hearts and maybe even full bellies if they enjoyed a coffee or treat donated by our friends at Starbucks),” says Lauren Smizer, a Child Life Specialist who managed the store. “In addition to our toy donors, we are especially grateful to the support of Michaels Jewelers, making sure that we had adequate toys for all ages, wrapping supplies, and even the volunteer support we needed for four shopping shifts. Each family was able to participate in the joy and magic of the season as they chose the perfect toys for their children, giving them back a sense of control that can often be lacking in the hospital at this time of year.”
A Gift for Parents
Altogether, 123 families visited the Snowflake Shop in December 2019, and more than 1,600 toys were distributed to kids spending holidays in the hospital (each family gets to choose more than one toy for each child). And among them were the St. George family.
“People told us about the shop,” Julie says, “and we thought, ‘Well, that sounds nice.’ But then we went down there, and there was so much stuff, it was unbelievable. There was so much joy. We got a personal shopper, which was good because it was a little overwhelming when we came in. There were just so many toys. The shopper would help us by asking, ‘How old is your son? How about this?’ My husband is a ‘Toy Story’ fan, so we got a couple of ‘Toy Story’ things, and we got little scooter-like toys you can ride on—all kinds of things.
“We could pick toys for the boys and we didn’t have to worry about paying for it or wrapping it—people wrapped it for us. They even brought the presents up to his room. We were truly blown away,” she says.
“The snowflake shop gave us a sense of normalcy,” Julie says. “My husband and I are like two ships passing in the night—we barely have time to sit down to a meal together, let alone Christmas shop. The snowflake shop gave us the ability to go pick out Christmas gifts together for our boys’ first Christmas.”
The Snowflake Shop was made possible entirely because of the generosity of donors and volunteers. Your donation of money and time can make a crucial difference for children all through the year. Put your gift to work today.