Crayons4Kids: Children's charity for children in the hospital is all grown up

When Matt and Emily Leinwand were 5 and 6, they often accompanied their father, Dr. Michael Leinwand, then a pediatric surgical resident, on his weekend rounds just so they could spend more time with him.

During those visits to the Los Angeles County Women and Children’s Hospital, the young siblings encountered children of all ages, some of whom had cancer and other incurable diseases. Many were facing long-term hospitalization. Emily and Matt wanted to know why the kids looked so down.

"My parents explained why the kids looked sad as best they could to a five and six year old," says Emily, now 21 and a senior majoring in Primary Education at Michigan State University, "When we found out, we wanted to do something to help. We decided to bring the kids crayons and coloring books."

At home, Emily and Matt designed a packing box with crayon stickers and bubble lettering and placed it on their front porch, where the mailman, friends, and relatives could place donations. What began with that box has now grown into a significant nonprofit organization, Crayons4Kids, that supplies year-round toys, DVD Players and DVD libraries, among other extras, for pediatric hospitals around the country, with the mission to brighten the lives of hospitalized children across America. 

Matt, now 19 and a philosophy major at University of California, Berkeley, says he retains strong impressions of his first visits to give away crayons. 

"I think that the hospital world that the kids are in is so alien from what our everyday life is like that in a lot of ways, when we bring gifts, we see surprise, and maybe shock that there is hope and a world beyond the hospital," he says. "Not only are the kids sick and insecure, their parents are also anxious. You can feel the energy of the room change when we come in with gifts. You’re not going to get a bright, big smile, but you feel an edge kind of lift off the room that you can tell has been there for a long, long time." 

Currently, Crayons4Kids serves hospitals in Kalamazoo, Los Angeles, Boston, and Philadelphia, while influencing and supporting similar missions at other hospitals around the United States.

"When we first started, it was just like, give (Emily and Matt) something to do," says Dr. Leinwand, a pediatric surgeon at Bronson Methodist Hospital for the past 12 years. "They asked for crayons from Girl Scouts, had a little roller skating party, and then a luncheon. It kept growing from there."

In Kalamazoo, that growth has included Operation Scribble, an annual holiday toy drive co-sponsored by WRKR-FM, and a now an annual August family-friendly benefit concert at Homer Stryker Field and home of the Growlers which last year featured former American Idol Matt Giraud.

In addition to collecting enough to provide children at Bronson toys throughout the year, financial donations have helped pay for the painting of an anxiety-reducing mural in Bronson’s pediatric sedation room which features a small cameo of young Emily and Matt. 

Crayons4Kids also has purchased and donated what Leinwand calls a "ginormous," multi-sensory bubble rover with multi-colored lights and touchable tentacles that roams the Bronson hallways to help reduce stress and provide distraction.

Because the nonprofit has no employees and is operated by family, friends, and volunteers, including mothers of Leinwand’s former patients, it retains a hands-on feel. Nearly 100 percent of its donations go straight to toys or other items for the children’s hospital. Gifts are carefully chosen based on the young patients' individual interests through information given by their doctors, families, or friends. Because Leinwand is at the hospital, he is often approached by doctors who know a child who might appreciate a gift because they have perhaps been recently admitted and are having a difficult time. That’s where Crayons4Kids enters.

For the past two years, Crayons4Kids has grown its annual fundraising concert into a huge, blow-out event at Homer Stryker Field. This year the concert features the Nashon Holloway Band, a folk, rock, R & B band of former and current Kalamazoo residents. The event will include face painting, food and beer, a zipline, Bounce House, and more. The benefit takes place Sunday, Aug. 20, with doors opening at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults, with children under 12 admitted free.  

"When we do these events, it’s really from the heart. There’s a chain of love that goes on," says Leinwand. "So often people approach me because they know somebody who used to be in the hospital, were touched by Crayons4Kids, and want to give back."

What began humbly with a cardboard box has touched many lives and had a tremendous impact, especially upon Matt and Emily themselves.

Crayons4Kids truly is a family affair. As Emily and Matt are now off at college, the Leinwand’s youngest siblings, Katie, 11, and Zoe, 6, are participating in the family venture.

"I wear many hats and Crayons4Kids is definitely my favorite," says Leinwand. "We are very blessed as a family in that we have everything we want in the world. I really teach my kids when they are very small to give back and to think about others. That’s been a beautiful thing." 

Emily agrees. "Because Matt and I were so young when my parents helped us make this thing for real, it’s always been in our blood to think of others before ourselves," she says. "In my job as a nanny, I’m always putting the kids first. Matt is the kind of guy who if he sees someone struggling on campus, he reaches out." 

For the past 15 years, the Leinwands have spent Christmas at the hospital giving children presents. Emily says it’s a family tradition she couldn’t imagine changing. "I want my kids to experience it, too," she says.

"Thinking of others first is kind of like muscle memory at this point," she says. "It’s what we do."

Theresa Coty O'Neil is a Kalamazoo area freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in many local publications and her short stories have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review and West Branch, among others.