Every spring, Alanna Worrall, 12, leads the production of “ Feel Better baskets,” as she calls them, from her living room in Brooklyn Park. The baskets go to children at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul.

Worrall came up with the idea for the little care packages in 2009 after she had surgery at the hospital herself. She remembered what it felt like to go through that experience and wanted to help other children in the same situation. Since then, she’s put together more than 300 “Feel Better” baskets, which she delivers just before Easter.

Worrall, a sixth-grader at Anoka Middle School for the Arts, has gotten the community involved, and, last month, she received a Prudential Spirit of Community Award as a top youth volunteer from Minnesota. The insurance company’s long-standing program honors two volunteers from each state, a middle school-age student and a high schooler. Shivani Nookala, a junior at Breck School in Golden Valley, was the other honoree in Minnesota this year.

Worrall and Nookala each received a $1,000 cash prize, an engraved silver medallion and a trip this May to Washington, D.C. Recipients are chosen based on effort, impact and personal growth, said Greg Loder, executive director of the Prudential Spirit of Community Initiative. The program is done in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Worrall’s baskets are “a great example of a student looking beyond herself and helping out in the community based on her own personal experience,” Loder said.

“She’s figured out how to focus on people in a hospital, how to make their day brighter. It’s something she saw a need for” and she put plenty of energy into it.

As a 6-year-old, Worrall was nervous about her surgery, which was done to remove a “facial vascular malformation,” an abnormal cluster of veins. However, hospital staff knew how to cheer her up. They stayed upbeat and delivered special trinkets to her, including a pink crocheted blanket that she still keeps on her bed.

It was around Easter time, and Worrall asked her mom, Jana, “Does the Easter bunny visit kids when they’re in the hospital?”

“My response was, ‘Of course he does,’ ” Jana said.

But her daughter was skeptical. “She asked me, ‘Can we help?’ ”

Alanna used birthday and Christmas money that added up to $35 to make four “feel better” baskets that year. She doubled the number in 2010 and put together 35 baskets the year after that. Worrall has continued to up the ante every year, and this month, she plans to make about 80 baskets.

Although Easter sparked the idea, the “feel better” baskets don’t have a religious tie-in, Jana said.

Fundraisers, sales pitches

Through the process, Alanna has learned “how to advocate.”

She’s learned from Ashlee Kephart, founder of the nonprofit organization Kids for A Better World in Brooklyn Center. Kephart spoke to her and other Girl Scouts about how “to make her project bigger by engaging others beyond just her family and friends,” such as local businesses, Jana said.

The organization also sent traffic to her project in an online campaign.

Several years ago, Alanna asked to meet with her school principal to get the go-ahead to send out the message to teachers, asking for donations.

Alanna has written letters to local businesses asking for support, partnered with community groups and set up fund- raisers, including a “hat day” at her school that raised $750, according to her mother.

She also brings collection boxes that she decorates to her school and church.

When she’s making a pitch, she tells people, “I’m bringing baskets to children to make them smile. This is my seventh year and I’d love your help. We really need donations of baskets, toys and bubbles,” she said.

Worrall has also raised $2,000 that paid for DVDs, video games, Legos, board games and crafts that children are able to take advantage of while they’re at the hospital. She even led a craft activity for inpatients and outpatients in the hospital’s waiting room.

What keeps Alanna motivated? “It helps me know that these baskets will help kids get through hard times. They need to have time to be kids when they’re in the hospital,” she said.

Adding a personal touch

Family and friends, sometimes including Alanna’s fellow Girl Scouts, pitch in with the basket making. She instructs them to fill the baskets with Easter grass, a bubble-blowing kit, an activity or craft, candy and a stuffed animal.

She does quality control, making sure the baskets are full and color-coordinated, her mom said, but no two baskets are the same, as everyone picks and chooses the contents based on a theme and a color scheme.

One of the crew members is Alanna’s 4-year-old brother, Archer, who gets a special instruction: At the end of the basket-making process, “Alanna says you have to hug the stuffed animal to send some love along,” Jana said.

Cate Pardo, a public relations specialist for Gillette, makes sure the baskets get to the hospital’s Child Life Department. (Worrall isn’t able to deliver the baskets directly, as she’s too young to go into the family services area.)

“What’s neat about Alanna is she gives each a personal touch” and the baskets are tailored to different interests and age groups, Pardo said.

A few years ago, the hospital made a special request to Alanna for summertime baskets. So often, the hospital sees visitors during the holidays but it doesn’t get the same kind of attention during that season. “Of course it’s difficult for kids who miss summer vacation to have surgery, so that was a special gesture on her part,” Pardo said.

It makes it special, too, knowing she’s had that experience of being in the hospital and can empathize, Pardo said. “Knowing someone in their community has been in their shoes and cares about them enough to create this basket of toys is very meaningful.”

The hospital honored Worrall in its recent Cure Pity campaign that “inspires people to see beyond kids’ disabilities and embrace acceptance and inclusion,” Pardo said. “Alanna is such a special girl. Her heart is filled with love and we feel that she’s an inspiration.”

 

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at annaprattjournalist@gmail.com.