The Spirit of Christmas
Empathy. Understanding. Hope. These are words of compassion from a Memphis family whose journey through personal tragedy has endeared them to many others on a similar journey.
For families with hospitalized children, feeling the holiday spirit can be difficult when a loved one is hurting and the burden of medical expenses is looming. For those in this situation, the Forrest Spence Fund assists with the non-medical needs of families with critically ill or chronically ill children.
In 2009, the Spence family began visiting families in the hospital on Christmas Day. They would disperse wrapped books to each family as they went from room-to-room. And what started as a family service project has evolved into an incredible amount of volunteer efforts touching the lives of thousands. Now on their fourth annual toy drive, the fund has already given thousands of gifts to patients, siblings, and families in the Mid-South.
To appreciate the significance of this organization, one must start with Forrest, himself.
Born in September 2007, as Brittany and David Spence’s first child, Forrest developed complications. After being transferred to LeBonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, he lived for 55 days until his passing. Now with three other children, the Spence family continues to honor Forrest’s memory and the efforts of the hospital staff through the Forrest Spence Fund.
While the FSF offers a myriad of year-round events from an annual 5K run and No Show Ball, the toy drive seems to be a favorite. Supplying gifts to area hospitals and community programs to help meet the needs of many children, volunteers are given a unique opportunity to serve at LeBonheur. The FSF sponsors an annual family dinner for LeBonheur patients, siblings, and the parents. Family members, including non-ill siblings, are invited into the “toy room” to receive a gift at the festive and fun event, which is scheduled for Dec. 22 this year.
“Siblings and parents can sometimes feel forgotten. And the truth is everyone is hurting when dealing with a sick family member,” explained Brittany. “For our parents, we disperse gas cards until we run out, which has happened the last two years.”
To make the dinner and distribution of toys a memorable event, planning and behind-the-scenes action begins weeks prior. Volunteers not only donate and collect the thousands of toys from various drop-off locations, but they also wrap toys according to gender and age appropriateness, create centerpieces for tables, and serve as “Santa’s elf” in other volunteer capacities..
The toy drive is a favorite and is dear to the hearts of the participants, especially those who know the benefits firsthand.
“I gladly participate in the toy drive for the Forrest Spence Fund each year, because I know from experience how much good the FSF does for children and their families,” explained Karan Burns, whose grandson, Hayden, was born with a very rare genetic disorder. “For the four and a half months that Hayden was in the hospital prior to his passing, representatives from the FSF came by his room often. They lent support to his parents with a meal, a smoothie, and emotional support. They brought a sense of comfort to our family.”
She added, “I love purchasing gifts for the toy drive, because I know what it means to the families of these children during a difficult time.“
Ellen Glosson echoed similar sentiments based on her experience more than 15 years ago.
“My daughter was a patient in LeBonheur for 10 days during Christmas when she was two years old. She received a Christmas happy from a different organization. People have no idea how much a small happy can mean to not only the patients, but also to parents.”
Now, Glosson pays it forward with the help of her high school art classes. Each month, they provide centerpieces and crafts for the family dinners sponsored by the FSF at LeBonheur. However, her greatest joy comes from personally serving during the holidays.
“Several years ago, my friend and I were looking for a place our teenage daughters could serve and give back to others at the Christmas season. We were told about FSF and were able to pass out gifts that year with our daughters. We were overwhelmed with the outpouring of love we experienced. From that year on, we look forward to signing up and being able to serve together. It’s the highlight of our Christmas season!”
Brittany admitted that when her family began giving back to families in the hospital on Christmas Day, they had no idea it would become the memorable event it is now.
“No, I never knew it would come to this! It has grown more than our wildest dreams! We had no goals or expectations when we started. We just wanted to help,” she said.
Brittany continues to help each Wednesday at LeBonheur serving as a mentor. After the hospital staff identifies a patient which may be hospitalized for an extended length of time, Brittany stops by to offer emotional support. The fund also provides other forms of support, such as counseling and financial assistance, as determined on a case-by-case basis.
“Through my son and the Forrest Spence Fund, I have been able to walk this journey with other families. We were there, rocking our child while he fought for his life, and ultimately dying in our arms,” shared Brittany.
And even though Brittany has worked with numerous families and time has passed since the loss of Forrest, she admitted it’s still difficult to see families hurt.
“It’s been hard. I get close to a lot of kids and their families. It’s hard to watch parents lose their children. I don’t take it lightly that they allowed me to walk this journey with them, especially at the most vulnerable time for a family,” she said.
The Forrest Spence Fund has become recognized as a reputable organization assisting families year round and especially during the holiday season. In fact, area hospitals have approached them about expanding to their facilities.