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Cindy Kerr

Founder and CEO, Ryan’s Case for Smiles

“Our mission is to help kids feel better to heal better. We want to bring a smile to their faces and help their hospital rooms feel more like home.”

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but sometimes a desire to lift a child’s spirits sparks the creative impulse that connects the two. Just ask Cindy Kerr, whose son Ryan spent years in and out of hospitals as he battled bone cancer. To help make his hospital stays more comfortable and cheerful, Kerr began sewing bright, whimsical pillowcases — with prints featuring hamburgers, animals, sports and other kid-friendly themes — for his room.

“When Ryan was diagnosed, I knew I couldn’t cure him, but I could make his hospital room feel more like home — and the pillowcases were a great conversation piece for when doctors and nurses came in to talk to him,” says Kerr, now 60. “When I went to the hospital with Ryan, I realized how boring it is, so I started bringing my sewing machine and letting kids make their own pillowcases. It gives them a feeling of choice, a distraction and a sense of accomplishment.”

Seeing the grin-eliciting power of a fanciful pillowcase inspired Kerr to create Ryan’s Case for Smiles in 2007, a volunteer organization that’s dedicated to bringing comfort and hope to young patients fighting serious illnesses or injuries and their families. “Our mission is to help kids feel better to heal better,” says Kerr, founder and CEO of the Wayne, Pa.-based organization. “We want to bring a smile to their faces and help their hospital rooms feel more like home.”

The organization also now provides tools and resources to help siblings and parents cope with the emotional trauma that comes with a life-threatening childhood illness in the family. Kerr is personally familiar with these emotional scars. After Ryan was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at age 12, he battled five cancer recurrences, 30 months of chemotherapy, 15 surgeries, amputation of his right leg and more than 150 days of physical therapy. Throughout his illness and even after his death in 2007,  “every member of our family has felt the impact of post-traumatic stress,” says Kerr. 

As many as 80 percent of pediatric patients and their families experience symptoms of traumatic stress after an illness, injury, hospitalization or medical procedure, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. “Siblings are usually the forgotten ones,” Kerr says, “so we’re increasingly focused on offering information about how to deal with traumatic stress for the whole family and developing materials to train child-life specialists to recognize and address symptoms of post-traumatic stress in all family members.”

In the last 10 years, the organization, which has four people on staff at headquarters, has grown to include 120 chapters serving 363 hospitals around the country and in Canada. Within each chapter, a local coordinator serves one to seven hospitals and finds individual volunteers, scout troops, quilting guilds, school groups and others to make the pillowcases. Sometimes the sewing is done at the hospital; in other instances, finished pillowcases are delivered. Each pillowcase includes a card with information about how to access coping resources.

To date, the organization has delivered more than 1.7 million pillowcases to children in hospitals throughout North America and continues to distribute 200,000 each year. “I’m an accidental CEO: What started as an act of love for my son became a regional start-up and grew into the amazing not-for-profit I lead today,” says Kerr, who earned a degree in fashion merchandising and an MBA in marketing before staying home to raise three kids.

Marilyn Degler, 66, a coordinator for Ryan’s Case for Smiles in Florida, says that her chapter has distributed more than 33,000 pillowcases since 2010. ““When we put the pillowcase on a child’s bed, it brightens their bed and their day,” says Degler. “I truly believe it makes a difference in their mood and healing.”

Patti Costello can attest to that. Her son Michael was born with a congenital heart defect and spent his entire life going in and out of the hospital for various procedures. “He started looking forward to going to the hospital because of the pillowcases,” says Costello, 52, who lives in Chester County, Pa. “The pillowcases changed his mind-set about going to the hospital. He never thought about the bad things. Over five years, he received over 80 pillowcases, and he’d change them every day when he was there for a while.” When it was time for Michael to do an Eagle Scout Service Project for Boy Scouts, he made more than 300 pillowcases for other kids. “The pillowcase thing really turned him into a giver,” says Costello. “It made him think about little things he could do to make people feel better or feel happy.” (Michael died in March 2017, a week before his 15th birthday.)

“To me, the most rewarding thing is knowing I’m helping some other families through this journey, because I know that you feel so small and so alone going through this,” says Kerr. “Not a day goes by that I don’t miss Ryan. But Ryan’s Case for Smiles has brought purpose to my life.”

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