Imagine being 14, hospitalized and diagnosed with a dangerous inflammatory disease. Imagine spending the holidays in a big, sterile hospital far from home. Now imagine presents and a stocking, all donated by volunteers—-relatively small gestures with a big impact. Imagine feeling a little better inside.
Now imagine paying it forward.
That's exactly what Aubrielle Champagne did. After a brush with meningitis and an extended stay at the Alaska Native Medical Center nearly four years ago, the now-18-year-old returns to the hospital's pediatric ward every Christmas, bringing gifts and goodies for the ward's patients.
"I know what it's like being there during the holidays," Champagne said. Giving back "Helps me feel grateful for the things I do have, and what I do get on Christmas," said Champagne.
Her own hospital stay wasn't exactly pleasant. In a season known for home-cooked meals shared with family, medications made it impossible for her to eat. By road, the ANMC hospital room was more than 300 miles from her family home in Tok. So when she received donated gifts that Christmas, they seemed to brighten the whole ward.
The next year, she came back; this time for a different reason. She worked with ANMC nurses and hospital staff to coordinate it all. She brought a special Crayola airbrush art set to give to a little boy who'd been in and out of the hospital for a long time. She met his mother; spent time with his family; visited him in his room.
Champagne said she rarely meets the pediatric ward patients to whom she brings gifts. Like Santa Clause, she usually arrives at night, leaving her presents under the tree. Before she comes, she speaks with the nurses and asks if there are any particular patients who could really use something to cheer them up.
This year, she hopes to bring full stockings for all 20 patients in the ANMC pediatric ward. To raise money for the effort, she recruited family, friends and community members. A few days before Christmas, she plans on flying to Anchorage from Wisconsin, where she plays hockey and studies at the University of Wisconsin Superior. She'll go back to the hospital, just like she does every year and deliver stockings filled with hand-picked gifts. Then she'll drive seven hours back to Tok to get home in time for Christmas. Her stay at the hospital and the opportunity to volunteer reminds her of the things that matter most, she said.
"I feel grateful for my family," Champagne said. "Giving back makes your body feel whole."
While Alaska is filled with volunteer opportunities year round, the holidays can be a particularly meaningful season to donate your time. Whether you live in the heart of Anchorage, the edge of the Kenai Peninsula, on the banks of the Kuskokwim River or the middle of the Panhandle, here's a short list of places and ways to give back.
In Anchorage, you can join Champagne in providing toys to young ANMC patients by donating to the Lori Lange Memorial Toy Fund. Named after a former patient, the daughter of ANMC nurse Lisa Lange, the fund helps collect toys for all of the hospital's young patients—-many of whom are far away from home during the holidays. Toys help children better cope with stressful hospitalizations, Lange found. More than 20,000 young people visit ANMC every year, according to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. For more information and to donate to the toy fund, click here.
Ring a bell for the Salvation Army, collecting donations for the organization's famous red kettle campaign at locations across the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Signing up is easy: Just call (907) 339-3429 or click here.
Want to volunteer, but don't have the time for a bell-ringing shift? You can also participate in the Salvation Army's Angel Tree program, which collects Christmas toys for children age 14 and under, or the Adopt-a-Family program, which matches volunteers with local families in need. Contact the Salvation Army for more information.
Pitch in at the Fairbanks Food Bank: According to its website, it requires more than 50 volunteer hours per day to keep the doors open. There are opportunities to sort, repackage and recycle, and it's easy to volunteer with a group of friends or coworkers. Nobody should go hungry at Christmas, and you can help make it so. Learn more or apply to volunteer here.
Help a four-legged Alaskan by volunteering with Bethel Friends of Canines, an organization that rescues dogs throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. Besides foster homes, the organization routinely searches for volunteers to walk dogs, deliver dog houses, help fundraise and more. To volunteer, click here or call 907-545-3915.
Volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Southeast Alaska. The international charitable organization is full of opportunities, whether you choose to help in the thrift store, mentor local children, lend a helping hand to a senior in need or donate some other skill. For more information, call 789-5535 ext. 7 or click here.
This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with ANTHC. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at email@example.com. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.