Ever since kindergarten, Minneapolis neighbors Abbie Nelson and Pia Phillips have been best friends. They’ve done everything together — including support each other through serious medical emergencies.
When Abbie was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in seventh grade and had to undergo hospital treatment, Pia was by her side. A year later, Pia was the one in the hospital after she developed Hodgkins lymphoma.
While they were lucky enough to have lots of visitors and gifts of cheer, they noticed others who didn’t.
“Our families were very supportive, but not everyone has that,” said Abbie.
During Pia’s hospitalization, she passed another patient’s room, the door open. “It was dark, there were no blankets, no people, no cozy stuffed animals,” she recalled. “He was all alone. It broke my heart.”
So she took one of her gift baskets, filled it with a blanket, a coloring book and pens and a stuffed animal, then asked a nurse to deliver it to the boy across the hall.
“The nurse said he just lit up,” Pia said.
Chronic illness and extended hospital stays are particularly tough for teens, said Abbie. “It’s a very lonely time, a growth time, and to add on something that you’re going to have to deal with for the rest of your life, it’s pretty scary.”
The hospital provided games, toys and other diversions — but most were geared for small children. “Teens are a forgotten group,” said Abbie. “They don’t know what to do with you.”
The girls decided to do something about it. Aided by family members, especially Abbie’s mother, Martha Dayton, they formed a nonprofit, PAB’s Packs (P for Pia and AB for Abbie), to provide backpacks filled with comfort items and personal care products to youths facing chronic illnesses in Twin Cities hospitals.
Each backpack contains a fleece blanket, a journal, a stuffed animal, a heart-shaped stressball, lotion, lip balm and a handwritten note of encouragement signed, “We’ve got your back.”
In its first full year of operation in 2015, PAB’s Packs (pabspacks.org) distributed 500 backpacks to hospitalized kids, ages 10 to 19. Last year, they doubled that number. This year, they’re on track to meet their goal of 1,500 backpacks. Their reach has expanded beyond the Twin Cities. Last week, they distributed PAB’s Packs to kids at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a Connecticut camp for chronically ill kids founded by the late actor Paul Newman.
Today, Abby, 18, and Pia, 17, are in good health and ready to start their senior year at the Blake School. Pia is cancer-free, and Abbie’s diabetes is under control.
Meanwhile, PAB’s Packs continues to grow, under the leadership of Pia and Abbie, Dayton (“Chief Idea Officer”) and director Steph Fedor (“Chief Champion Officer”).
In addition to delivering backpacks, the girls have added another goal: to inspire teen empathy and encourage acts of kindness. Many of the teens who have received packs now take part in PAB’s Ambassador Program, hand-delivering backpacks and encouraging other teens to give back.
And Abbie and Pia have gotten an education — in building an organization, fundraising and recruiting donors and volunteers.
“I’ve learned a lot about the possibilities,” said Abbie. “If you’re passionate about something, it’s totally doable. ... And it’s been crazy super fun at the same time.”