Easter for Eli delivers smiles

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec Martin Garrett (left), founder of Easter for Eli, accepts a filled Easter basket from Bill Amrhein of Scissorhands Styling Salon in Altoona. As one of the collections points for the drive, the salon collected more than 250 Easter baskets to be given to children in nine hospitals in five states.

Easter is on its way, and Martin Garrett is getting ready.

In a few weeks, the Roaring Spring resident will be traveling hundreds of miles to deliver Easter baskets to hospitalized young cancer patients and others for the fourth time.

Through the Easter for Eli initiative, Garrett is gathering thousands of Easter baskets to give to these children, their siblings and other patients as well as those served locally by the Brian Morden Foundation and the Gloria Gates Foundation.

Garrett’s goal for 2018 is 3,000 baskets to be distributed to nine children’s hospitals in four states and the Washington, D.C., area. In addition to the Easter baskets, Easter for Eli will give gift cards (iTunes, Amazon and Google play cards) to teens and Sheetz cards to families for stops during their hospital trips.

Garrett knows what it means to a child who is ill to be remembered on the holiday.

The nonprofit project is in memory of his son, Elias “Eli” Garrett, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins T-cell lymphoma cancer when he was 2 years old. During his care, Eli spent two Easters in Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and died on May 7, 2009, just 10 days before his 4th birthday.

But he was not without an Easter basket those two years.

Garrett said Elias’ aunt made him a basket in 2008. Then, she and co-workers at Warnaco went a step further and created Easter baskets for every child on the oncology floor. They repeated their gesture the next year.

The gifts “made everyone very happy,” Garrett said. He said parents and the children had big smiles on their faces, and it created a warm feeling. He added that parents with a hospitalized child often do not have the time to prepare for the holiday.

So even after Eli died, the child’s aunt and her co-workers continued to make about 20 to 30 Easter baskets each year for the oncology floor.

Three years ago, Garrett expanded the goal to provide a basket for every bed in the hospital or 319 baskets. He posted his idea and a request for contributions on social media.

“I thought I was shooting for the stars with 300 (plus) baskets,” he said.

Instead, Easter for Eli got 1,000 baskets.

The second year, he set a goal of 1,000 baskets and got 1,800. Last year, he set a goal of 2,000 baskets and got 2,700 baskets and 4,500 gift cards.

Each and every donation was distributed because when the overflow came in, Garrett added the Easter for Eli project to other hospitals.

This year, young patients in Hershey Medical Center; Geisinger Medical Center in Danville; Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia; West Virginia University Hospital in Morgantown, W.Va.; Children Hospital in Akron, Ohio; Johns Hopkins Medical Center and the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore; the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.; and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC will be recipients of baskets.

Garrett, along with his friend, Jim Hindinger of Altoona, use one of their trucks to pull a donated box trailer loaded with the gifts and head for a different metropolitan area on three separate trips. The box trailer and three others are donated by a friend for storage and transportation, Garrett said.

He gets requests from the hospitals for the baskets through friends and relatives who have a connection.

For instance, as a WVU student, his daughter, Kayleigh, was able to arrange for baskets to be delivered at the university hospital there.

Siblings of hospitalized children are not forgotten. They, too, receive an Easter basket or gift cards.

Garrett said when Eli was hospitalized, his daughter had to spend many hours at the hospital, too.

“The siblings go though a lot of turmoil and grief as well,” he said.

For those who want to contribute baskets, they are still being accepted through March 11.

Ideas for appropriate items to put in a basket according to age group are listed on the project’s Facebook site — www.face book.com/EasterforEli. Garrett emphasized that no candy or food of any kind can be accepted because of dietary restrictions.

All completed baskets must be wrapped in cellophane and marked for a boy or girl and the appropriate age group. Completed baskets and gift cards may be taken to drop-off points set up throughout the area. They are listed on the Facebook page.

Among the drop-off points is Scissorhands Styling Salon, 102 58th St. Bill Amrhein, owner of the salon, said it is the salon’s third year of helping with the project, and the salon staff will get together today to build the baskets.

Amrhein added that he spent time with Eli before he died.

“When Martin started the project, we jumped on it,” he said. “Families need help. It is easy to do.”