KALAMAZOO — To some a Christmas gift comes in the form of a stuffed animal. For others, it is simply the smile on the face of a child.
Either way, both were in big supply as the Kalamazoo Wings, mascot Slappy and Santa Claus visited Bronson’s Children’s Hospital on Tuesday afternoon, with bags full of stuffed toys.
The K-Wings held their 12th Annual Teddy Bear Toss during last Saturday night’s game against the Elmira Jackals. Following the K-Wings first goal of the game, scored by Justin Taylor, fans tossed 688 new or gently used stuffed animals on to the ice. Players and staff collected the toys which were donated to the Salvation Army and to the Children’s Hospital.
Head coach Nick Bootland, along with players Sam Ftorek, Taylor Ellington and Elgin Reid helped Santa deliver the stuffed animals, much to the delight of the children who are patients at Bronson.
“To see the looks on the kids faces, makes my day, makes my week,” said Ellington. “It’s amazing to see what some of these children go through and how positive and happy they are to see us. It’s amazing to have an opportunity to come here and see these kids.”
As the players and Santa roamed the halls, children would call out to Santa and Slappy from their rooms. Parents snapped pictures and the players played a friendly, but competitive game to see how many of the children would choose the animal they brought in to the room.
As the only children’s hospital in southwest Michigan, Bronson Children’s Hospital provides pediatric services, pediatric intensive care unit, neonatal intensive care unit and a trauma and emergency center with a team of pediatric critical care specialists, trauma surgeons, emergency medicine specialists, other medical specialists, and highly trained staff members care for seriously ill or injured children.
“One of the main goals at the Children’s Hospital is to make sure that the kids aren’t missing out on things that their peers are doing at school or with family,” said Corey Richardson, Child Life Specialist at Bronson.
“I think that having visitors, like the K-Wings, and Santa coming in really brightens their day and gives them something to look forward to.”
Taking a burden off the parents and children and giving them a chance to escape reality if only for a few moments are a few of the reasons Ftorek has participated in this event the past three years. “I was here a lot as a kid growing up, in the hospital,” Ftorek said, “and I would always bring a stuffed animal with me.”
“It’s really rewarding to be able to put a smile on the parents and kids faces,” Reid said, “even if it is just for the day. It is important, given the position we are in as players, to be involved in the community.”
Bootland, who has been a part of the hospital visits for the past seven years as a player and coach, experienced firsthand the care the staff at the hospital takes with their patients when his son Breckyn was admitted to the hospital.
“I know how hard these people work and how they make your time here comfortable,” Bootland said. “It’s an adverse time for anyone. So if you can put a smile on these kids’ faces, I will always take time out of any day to try and do it.”
Bootland said that of all the visits and appearances the team makes each season, this one is always the most popular. “I could have brought the whole team probably, and they would have come in a heartbeat,” he said.
Reid mentioned to the staff at Bronson that he would like to come back and volunteer as often as he could as time permitted. “We are going to try and get a few more players out here on a more regular basis,” Bootland said. “Elgin wants to facilitate that and work with them (Bronson) and will probably come more than most of the guys.”
As for the fans that provided the team with the hundreds of stuffed animals to make this visit possible, the team was grateful.
For Ellington, this was his first opportunity to take part in an event like this. “Without the fan support, this would not be possible. But to see the bears go out on the ice and then bring them here and hand them out, and see how excited the kids are is something very special,” he said.
“It speaks to the level of fans we have here and the support we have,” Reid said.
Ftorek echoed his teammates. “It was really nice to see. It is all for a good cause and in this season, especially with the economy the way it is, it’s nice that people will go out and give freely and allow us to come here and give back to the kids.”
Santa, without his sleigh and reindeer, gets as much pleasure out of this visit as he does traveling to the other billions of homes around the world on Christmas Eve.
“There’s no way to explain it,” said Santa. “I love the kids and I love the K-Wings. To see the guys give of themselves to these kids, that’s what Christmas is all about.”