It was a Tuesday morning in January 2007, when Pennsylvania mom Nicole Mitschele noticed something was wrong with her son Caleb. In the weeks prior, he had suffered from a double ear infection, followed by what doctors suspected was a winter bug—but this particular morning, Caleb’s eyes were glazed, he wasn’t speaking and his body was stiff.
It was a drastic change from normal. Until then, Caleb had been a healthy, happy 2-year-old, who loved playing with his stuffed animal Mr. Bear, and singing and dancing along to shows on Country Music Television—his favorite channel. Mitschele and her husband took him to the local hospital, where doctors detected a brain tumor and sent him to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).
But there wasn’t much the doctors at CHOP could do. Caleb underwent brain surgery to remove the tumor, but then he fell into a coma he never woke up from. Friends and family gathered around Caleb in his hospital room until he died just five days after the nightmare began.
While devastated over the loss of her son, Mitschele said she was grateful for the time she was able to spend with Caleb and for the support from loved ones, who rallied around them in the in hospital. She was so grateful, in fact, that it inspired her to start a foundation in Caleb’s honor to help other families devote more time to their hospitalized children.
“I couldn’t imagine not being able to be there with Caleb every step of the way. I was holding my son as he took his last breath. A lot of people don’t get that opportunity to say goodbye.”
“We were in the hospital for five days and had 30 people around us at all times, day and night,” Mitschele said. During that time, she noticed other children’s rooms weren’t nearly as full—and some went entirely unvisited during her son’s stay.
“A lot of kids on the same floor—in fact, a little boy in the next room—had been in the hospital for more than a year and hadn’t had a visitor in 2 or 3 weeks,” Mitschele said. “Lots of the kids had siblings [outside of the hospital] or the parents had to keep working, so they had to take care of other responsibilities.”
At first, grieving over her own son, Mitschele only thought about the other children in passing, but over time, she said she couldn’t stop thinking about them.
“I couldn’t imagine not being able to be there with Caleb every step of the way,” Mitschele said. “I was holding my son as he took his last breath. A lot of people don’t get that opportunity to say goodbye.”
For many families with children hospitalized over a period of months or years, other responsibilities can intervene and prevent parents from visiting their sick or injured children. The parents are often plagued with financial concerns, with medical charges mounting on top of the bills they already have.
Mitschele’s foundation, Pennies from Heaven, was started in order to help ease the financial burden these families face by paying their hospital, electric, gas and even transportation bills—thus allowing parents to spend more time at the hospital with their children.
The motto of the foundation is, “No parent should have to prioritize a payment or job before the care of their sick child.”
Lending a hand
“My sister Jess is a social worker, and so we got into contact with social workers at CHOP who told us not many other foundations did that kind of thing,” Mitschele said. “Most foundations do not actually help families of sick children.”
Mitschele said she spent many nights thinking about what the qualifications should be, eventually settling on trying to help families who have a sick or injured child who is in ongoing treatment and has to be hospitalized for a long period of time.
“People sometimes think we only help children with cancer, but we also help children who are crucially ill, who have a disease they were born with, or kids who have been in accidents,” Mitschele said. “We’ve helped the family of a 12-year-old who was shot in a hunting accident, who’s been in the hospital for months receiving ongoing treatment.”
“We look for families who may need help more than others, who seem to be struggling the most,” she added.
Families can apply for support by having social workers at hospitals fill out an application data sheet and submit it to Pennies from Heaven. If approved, the foundation will pay various bills for the family directly.
“We’ve paid numerous mortgage payments, or electric, gas, oil or other utility bills,” Mitschele said. “We’ve even paid for bus tickets for families to get to the hospital. We’ve gotten stacks and stacks of applications—I keep every single one.”
Pennies from Heaven has assisted 128 families since May 2010—such as Vanessa’s and Bobby’s families. Vanessa is a 9-month-old who was born premature at 24 weeks, weighing just 1.3 pounds, and unable to leave the hospital because of a potentially fatal condition called necrotizing entercolitis, which causes intestinal tissue to die. Her parents visited daily at first, but had to reduce coming to see her because of financial concerns. To help, Pennies from Heaven wrote a check for $675.00 to pay for the family’s rent, water and heat bells.
Bobby, meanwhile, is a 17-year-old who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. He was admitted multiple times to the hospital, and in October 2011, his lung function dropped more than 20 percent. Scans showed he had irreversible damage to his lungs. His mother suffered a significant loss of income, in addition to having three other children to care for, limiting the time she could spend with him. Pennies from Heaven paid their rent in November to ease some of the strain.
The foundation holds various fundraising events throughout the year to raise money, such as a Halloween bowling tournament in honor of Caleb’s birthday on October 18; however, their biggest fundraiser is the ‘Tricky Tray’ event every year at the end of April. Tricky Tray is essentially a basket raffle. The baskets are made up of donated items from local vendors and other community members.
“Last year we had 105 baskets,” Mitschele said. “One year, we had a gentleman who donated a brand new lawnmower, and there’s a jewelry store that consistently donates expensive items. We have baskets for every member of the family, including pets.”
The event brings in tens of thousands of dollars for the foundation, according to Mitschele. This year’s Tricky Tray event is on April 29 from 12:00 to 2:30 pm at Ehrhardt’s Waterfront Restaurant in Hawley, Pa. People can also donate money through www.calebspennies.org to support Pennies from Heaven. Ninety-eight percent of profits go directly to helping families.
“It’s great to know we’re helping families and making a difference,” Mitschele said. “I’m the one writing the checks so knowing who I’m helping makes the devastating loss of Caleb somewhat more tolerable. The whole concept is, every penny counts.”