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Students box up smiles for hospitalized children

Cambria Heights senior launches effort to donate items to sick kids

Cambria Heights seniors Molly Hayes (left), Braden Thomas and Morgan Link organize Jared Boxes that will be donated to children currently admitted in the emergency room and intensive care unit at UPMC Altoona. “We just thought this would be a great way to lift the children’s spirits and help cheer them up a little bit,” Thomas said. Mirror photo by Calem Illig

PATTON — A prospective medical student with goals to be a doctor, Cambria Heights senior Braden Thomas hopes that he can eventually make a positive impact in a patient’s life every day.

Although he has a long journey before he can don a white coat and stethoscope, Thomas has taken the first steps toward brightening a sick child’s day.

Through the Jared Box Project, Thomas and his classmates at the Cambria Heights High School donated 120 shoeboxes full of toys, gifts and other goodies to children in the emergency room and intensive care unit at UPMC Altoona.

“We just thought this would be a great way to lift the children’s spirits and help cheer them up a little bit,” Thomas said. “A lot of kids may be in the hospital during the holidays, and that can obviously be a very difficult time for families. I think even these little boxes could help put a smile on their face and maybe brighten their day a little bit.”

The project is named after Jared McMullen, who was 5 years old when he was diagnosed with an incurable brain stem tumor in 1999.

According to officials with the Jared Box Project, McMullen, a State College native, would carry a backpack full of toys and games to all appointments and often asked why the other children didn’t bring toys to their exam rooms.

His parents, Craig and Ruth, said Jared typically shared his toys with other children and often invited them to join him in a game of Uno.

“Even though he was this little boy at such a young age, he noticed other kids in the waiting room that were sad or upset, and he went out of his way to try and make their day better,” said Cindy Kolarik, executive director of the Jared Box Project and a close friend of the McMullen family. “He opened his backpack and shared his toys with all the other kids. He became very popular with everyone at the hospital.”

McMullen lost his battle with cancer Nov. 12, 2000, and in the time since, the Jared Box Project has become a nationwide project with schools and organizations in all 50 states participating.

The project was originally planned to be a one-time deal, but after the need became more prevalent, his family members were inspired to continue.

“Shortly after he passed away, we were left with this overwhelming desire to do something and honor his legacy,” Kolarik said. “He walked through this absolute nightmare with grace and faith. He set an example for us here, and we wanted to pick up where he left off and provide toys for the kids at the hospital.”

Thomas said he is a distant relative of the McMullen family, which he said also led to his passion for the project.

“This was also based directly out of need,” Thomas said. “(UPMC Altoona) is almost completely out of Jared Boxes, and they go through about 50 per month. Anything helps, and anything could make a kid smile.”

In an effort to collect as many Jared Boxes as possible, Thomas set the donation up as a friendly competition between all 23 homerooms in the high school.

Rachel Manack’s senior homeroom won the contest convincingly with 33 donated boxes. She said she was proud of the time and effort all students put into the project.

“These students really went above and beyond,” Manack said. “They saw a need in their community, and everyone immediately embraced this project. These kids (in the hospital) are facing such a difficult and scary time right now, and I’m proud of our kids for doing something special to try and lift them up.”

While she did not work directly with the students at Cambria Heights, Kolarik was left in awe at their effort.

“It’s so inspiring to see young adults stepping up and taking on a project like this,” Kolarik said. “It’s really amazing to see this project live on and keep going.”

Thomas said while the 120 boxes will provide an immediate boost at the hospital, the need for more donations will always be prevalent.

He encourages other schools and organizations to join in and help make the holidays brighter for those in need.

“Almost every hospital is in need,” Thomas said. “This is something that anyone can do. We need to spread the word and help make a positive impact on these kids who are struggling.”

Mirror Staff Writer Calem Illig is at 814-946-7535.

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