Andrea’s Closet is named for Andrea Brunk, who was only 8 years old when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Of course, like most children suffering from such a disease, she dreaded her regular hospital visits.
“She dealt with it in such a brave way,” says Traci Brunk, Andrea’s mother. “Each time we’d go in for a treatment, she would get a sticker, or a beanie baby, or a pencil. But when she saw the Barbie Dolls—when she knew she could get a Barbie Doll, her face just lit up. It completely changed her treatment.”
Unfortunately, Andrea’s cancer was aggressive and she died after 18 months of treatment, just days before her 10th birthday. But Traci still felt a tremendous love for her daughter, so she looked for a way to fill the void. She did it by doing the thing that she and Andrea had always loved to do, by shopping.
Brunk began buying toys by the dozens in order to cope with her grief, keeping them hidden from her husband for fear of how he might react. But once Kenny discovered her secret, he joined her in her shopping sprees until they had so many toys they didn’t know what to do.
“So we approached the hospital with this idea,” says Kenny, “to build a closet and fill it with toys so that every child could have a place to go to take away their fear.”
“We’re taking a lot of things away from these kids,” says Joy Daughtery, child-life specialist at Banner Medical Center. “They don’t get a choice about whether they’re going to have surgery or not, or if they’re going to have an IV, or a procedure. So Andrea’s Closet is such an awesome way to provide a choice for them.”
Providing choice is a big part of the child-life philosophy. The lack of control over what’s happening to their bodies, the medication they’re taking, or the treatment they’re receiving makes an illness scarier for kids and more difficult to endure. For that reason, any decisions that can be left up to the children are encouraged.
“With Andrea’s Closet they can choose what toy they get,” and it’s amazing how much difference even a small measure like this can make in attitude, said child-life specialist Gretchen Pace.
Andrea’s Closet started at St. Joseph’s Hospital in 2002 and has spread to hospitals across Arizona. Since then it has grown to include other programs such as Laptops for Kids, which provides hospitalized children with computers so they can keep up with school work and stay connected to friends and family. Andrea’s Closet has also developed a financial assistance program for families with sick children, and a burial fund for those children who lose their battle against their illness.
At Andrea’s Closet, our mission is to help children and their families cope with illness, but our vision is to deliver smiles, one toy at a time.