For Valentine’s Day, Send Love

Rather than chocolates and dinner at a crowded restaurant, would you like to fill your heart on Valentine’s Day?

Then check out the Valentine Project.

Co-founder Andrea Margida is no stranger to cancer. When she was 16, it took her mother. Later, her brother was diagnosed and, with treatment, survived.

But when Andrea was a young mother, she and her husband, Anthony, found themselves among a community that nobody wants to join — families whose children are diagnosed with cancer.

When she was 5, their daughter Michaela had brain surgery to remove a tumor at the top of her spinal cord. Luckily, the biopsy results were benign. Even though she didn’t have cancer, Michaela’s post-operative therapies were conducted in a pediatric cancer unit. And because of the concern for a recurrence, it is also where she went for annual brain scans and whenever she had a severe headache.

Today Michaela is a healthy young woman working on a Ph.D. in environmental science.

Remembering what it was like for their family before and after Michaela’s surgery, Andrea and Michaela volunteered in 2007 at Camp Quality, a summer camp for Ohio children with cancer and their siblings.

Their jobs were to buddy with one camper each and make it the best week possible. Michaela was 18 at the time and partnered with one of the siblings. Andrea was assigned to the sister of Michaela’s buddy, a 13-year-old girl with soft-tissue cancer. Andrea was told it would be the girl’s last summer.

Miraculously, she lived another eight years, years filled with difficult treatments, including a double mastectomy. She also returned to camp several times, allowing only Andrea to be her buddy. At 21, the young woman died with Andrea and Michaela by her side.

The third year that Andrea and Michaela volunteered at the camp, Andrea’s son Gregory joined them. It was he who had the idea to start the Valentine Project.

“What if we anonymously send each camper, both the kids with cancer and their siblings, a box of fun things for Valentine’s Day?” he asked and his family immediately got on board.

Gregory listed the 88 campers by first name, gender and age. Michaela used Facebook to invite students in her small, all-women college to choose a child and create a gift package. All 88 children were picked minutes after she published her post.

That was in 2010. The Valentine Project quickly grew after that first year. Families tell other families about it, as do staffers at children’s hospitals. Two years ago, the project expanded to include children with chronic illnesses and their siblings.

This year, Gregory, who is now 24, is piloting the project in California where he now lives.

What is it that makes the Valentine Project so special to the community of families with children who have cancer or chronic illness?

I spoke with Sara Taggart, whose third child, Annie, has osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. “There are so many things for kids with illness, but nothing for siblings. They have to take a back seat while the focus is on the sick child.”

For the Taggarts, Valentine’s Day is now like Christmas. Nobody knows what is in the packages. “People don’t skimp, and rather than pity, it feels like an outpouring of love from strangers.”

Entirely anonymous, children are listed by first name, age and gender. Donors do not know if the child they choose has an illness or is a sibling. Taggart told me this was really important because the gifts her kids receive are not chosen with Annie’s illness in mind.

“Can you imagine if people knew she had brittle bones?” Taggart asked. “They’d only send stuffed animals.”

Like many other recipient families, the Taggarts feel so touched by the Valentine Project they now sponsor a child each year. “The kids and I are thrilled when we shop for the child we’ve chosen to sponsor. It’s a great way to teach my kids the joy of giving.”

So how does the Valentine Project work? I admit I couldn’t fully comprehend it until I made a trip to Andrea and Anthony’s home in Alliance, widely known as the Valentine House.

Eligible families register on the Valentine Project’s website. It is also where people can choose a child to sponsor or to donate money.

Cash donations help pay for shipping. This year 889 boxes will be sent out in Ohio and 116 in California, totaling $20,040 for shipping.

Meanwhile, back at the Valentine House, the ground floor has been taken over by the project. Just inside the kitchen door, I found a mountain of donation boxes sent from all over the country.

As action breeds understanding, I put together a package.

Each child has a number, which the donors write on the shipping box. On Andrea’s kitchen counter, gift tags are organized by number with the child’s name, gender and age.

I picked and opened a box and pulled the corresponding gift tag. My package was for an 8-year-old boy. I inspected the contents of the box. Anything referring to illness, such as cards with the words “Stay strong” or “Keep fighting,” are removed. These packages are meant to be a reprieve from the immersion of acute or chronic illness.

Along with whatever the donor chooses to send, each package must contain a stuffed animal, something to do (craft, board game, art supplies), and candy. If any of these items are missing, the Margida living room has a “shop” of toys to make each package complete. Mine needed a stuffed animal.

Valentine packages ready for shipping boxes.

Finally, I chose a handmade pillowcase patterned with bright lizards on dark green leaves. I filled the pillowcase with the gifts and tied it with the gift tag. Once assembled, my package went in the dining room. There, assembled packages were neatly stacked under the large table, the buffet and in every corner.

The front parlor has packaging materials on a table. Next to the table, unassembled boxes are stacked higher than I am tall.

“Tonight, FedEx will bring over a truck,” Andrea explained. The packages are boxed, the boxes labeled and then stored in the truck until it’s full. FedEx then takes the boxes to their facility where they have secure storage.

“Everything ships on the same day. We’ve sent one truck already,” Andrea told me.

Part of why the Margidas went to the cancer camp all those years ago was to teach their children to have compassion and to give to others. Every step along the way, the Valentine Project teaches countless volunteers the value of giving. Giving money, yes, but also time and energy. Giving creative ideas and products, like the pillowcases.

A troop of Girl Scouts came to the Valentine House and colored the heart-shaped return labels that go on every package. Students from the University of Mount Union and Walsh University keep the “shop” organized. They also regularly build and box packages.

In other cities across the state, people offer their homes as drop sites for packages and then drive them to the Valentine House.

“I know we’re not solving world hunger,” Andrea told me, “but we see the impact this has on families. It reminds them they are loved and that there are good people in the world.”

What better message to send on Valentine’s Day?

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on February 11, 2018