Christopher Hippensteel, a 12-year-old dystonia patient from Alpena, Mich., was surprised on Thursday night at C.S. Mott Children Hospital by two male swimmers and two female rowers with a personalized holographic Spiderman valentine.
Instead of spending all of Valentine’s Day evening with a significant other, student athletes made valentines for patients at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital through the organization Michigan From the Heart. The Michigan athletes volunteer every Thursday, giving out signed baseball caps and spending time with patients.
Michigan From the Heart started in 1991 after Desmond Howard visited a patient at Mott through the Make-A-Wish foundation, but stuck around to visit other patients, including Channon Boullion. Her parents, Ed and Leann, were inspired — by Howard’s hospitality and a lack of activities for her daughter — to found Michigan From the Heart.
The program has grown to feature athletes from every sport from football to rowing to swimming and diving, but the first team to volunteer on a regular basis was the basketball team, Ed said.
“Our first steady student athlete who came up here most every Thursday night was Juwan Howard and he brought his buddies, the Fab Five,” Ed said. “Then the football team and eventually the hockey team joined until it evolved to where we are today with all teams.”
From the Heart volunteer Curtis Schuster said the program aims to bring a smile to the patient faces in the midst of a challenging time in their health.
“Our whole mission is about bringing a little bit of fun and a little relief to kids and families who are having a really hard time,” Schuster said. “It’s no fun to be a kid in the hospital or the parent with kid in the hospital. When we come to visit we don’t want anything. Usually, when a doctor comes in they need questions answered or tests done. We’re just there to brighten their day.”
One week, field hockey players were dancing to the song “Gangam Style” and tennis players were singing along to Justin Bieber on the 12th floor, while the seventh floor pediatric intensive care unit received decorated valentines pictures with the patients.
Dan Fischer, director of Child and Family Life at Mott, said the organization has immeasurable benefits for the patients and their families. He said they look forward to the visits every week.
“It’s fun for them; it’s distracting for them and it really helps them through a difficult time,” Fischer said.
The relationship between the student athlete volunteers and the patients exists beyond Thursday nights. Brian Griese, a ’97 alum and football player, took one of the patients he met through this organization to her high school prom. Although the patient was paralyzed from the chest down, Griese held her while the couple danced. Another patient, a 15-year-old girl, joined the volleyball team, to cheer from the bench in uniform, just like the players.
Boullion told the story of one young patient who, after being told he wouldn’t be in the hospital on Thursdays, said he didn’t want to come to the hospital at all.
“This little boy would come in on Monday and go home on Friday morning,” Boullion said. “One day the doctor says ‘Okay, Brad, we’re going to change your protocol so you can go to school more. So, now you come in on Friday and get to go home on Tuesday.’ (The boy) says, ‘I guess I won’t be coming back. If I’m not here on Thursday nights, I’m not coming back anymore.’”
Typically, there are somewhere from 30 to 40 student athletes participating in the program, but in January, Schuster said there were a record 107 student athlete volunteers.
Swimmer Angie Chokran, a LSA junior, has been volunteering regularly on Thursday nights since she was a freshman.
“This is something I look forward to during the week,” Chokran said. “This program means a lot more to me than I can put into a couple of sentences. Being here and having the opportunity to brighten someone’s day is huge, but they don’t realize they’re brightening our day too.”
Soccer player Tyler Leppek, a LSA junior, said the Thursday night visits offer a much-needed distraction for the patients.
“I feel like it takes their mind off what’s going on in the hospital and gives them a new face to see,” Leppek said. “Taking pictures with them makes (the patients) the center of attention in a positive light.”
Swimmer Roman Willets, an education senior, said the volunteering experience impacts both the patients and athletes in a meaningful way.
“First and foremost it keeps things in perspective for us as athletes. Sometimes people get bogged down by a tough practice or balancing school and working out,” Willets said. “It gives us all a lot of energy for the week. This is a very motivating place to come and humbling as well.”
Eaton Rapids, Mich. resident Devin Gauna, an 18-year-old seeking treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, was visited by redshirt sophomore football players Jake Ryan and Joey Burzynski. He said the visit kept his spirits up.
“Today was good because I feel a lot better than I have been,” Gauna said. “The athletes made me laugh a little, a lot. I noticed them through the window a little bit, these big ole football players.”
Grand Blanc resident Jennifer Witten’s 3-year-old son Cohen is being treated at Mott for pineoblastoma, a type of brain tumor. Witten said she enjoyed the fresh faces that brought a smile to her son’s face.
“It really brightens our day; it’s a lot of fun. It gives him somebody else to talk to and see besides his mom and dad all day long,” Witten said. “I think it’s awesome that they come, period. They don’t have to do that. They’re not obligated to do that.”
On top of the Thursday night athlete visits, Michigan From the Heart hosts a charity golf outing in the spring and special trips to different University sporting events.
“Thursday night visits are a key component to Michigan From the Heart, but we take families to athletic events all year long,” Schuster, one of the volunteers, said. “We try to aid the family in any way that we can. This is all done in conjunction with the athletic department. They give us a lot of help and support in getting the athletes trained.”
Fischer said the organization also represents a connection of two major University affiliates — the Athletic Department and the University of Michigan Health System.
“It’s really a three prong relationship; there’s been a really nice relationship between Mott, the Athletic Departments and Michigan From the Heart,” Fischer said. “It’s ultimately a benefit for the patients and their families.”
Athletic department officials did not respond to several requests for comment for this article.
The relationship between the Athletic Department, Mott and Michigan From the Heart has been crucial to sustaining Thursday night athlete visits, but it has been the athletes’ dedication that livens the organization, Boullion said.
“The most important part of the program has been the volunteers through the years,” Boullion said. “You’ve got dedicated people.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify why From the Heart was founded.