“Nothing heals the heart faster than a child smiling,”– Matt, father of Ellie

Ellie is wearing a pink top and gray leggings, her hair pulled up in a matching pink scrunchie. She’s cuddled between her parents, Matt and Tia, who joined a Zoom call from the playroom of their home near Fort Benning, Georgia. Ellie’s wiggly in their laps like any three-year-old, and the whole family is radiant, with big smiles and a warm greeting.

Right off the bat, Ellie is eager to share. “They gave me some stickers,” she shouts happily, and Tia laughs: “That’s what she remembers, can you believe that? The stickers!”

Just a few weeks ago, things weren’t so cheerful. After a midnight emergency visit, the family learned Ellie needed an appendectomy. Her condition was serious, so she and Tia were transported by ambulance to Scottish Rite Hospital in Atlanta, two hours from their home. Matt stayed behind to arrange childcare for their older son then packed up bags and hurried to meet them.

“We don’t have to go to the hospital too often,” Tia says, her face suddenly serious, “and we’re very grateful for that.” Matt remembers “playing out the worst fears” in his head, and both parents are somber as they revisit the seven days they spent with Ellie in her hospital room. COVID restrictions and closures made the whole experience even more difficult, but there were two daily bright spots: the delivery of craft bags from Project Sunshine.

Ellie’s all smiles as she leans toward the camera to rattle off all of her favorite things from her hospital stay: the stickers again, slime, a puzzle, painting, crayons—she’s so excited she trips over her words. Tia shakes her head, and Matt says, still with a tinge of disbelief in his voice, “It was this life-threatening situation, we were totally on edge, and what she remembers is an enjoyable experience.”

Tia says that she’s getting goosebumps just talking about it: “Having Project Sunshine provide us with really awesome tools to support us as parents—it was life-changing, seriously. We got to enjoy being with our daughter in a time that was otherwise really, really stressful.”

Matt agrees, adding, “I don’t know how we would have gotten through that week otherwise—I cannot overstate the impact that something so simple had. It made all the difference.”

Ellie’s gone off to find something more fun than grown-ups talking. Matt and Tia’s eyes follow her and they’re smiling, but the shadows of worry from that long week linger. “Everything happened so fast,”

Matt says, “we had no time to prepare a three-year-old not to be scared, to make sure she was comfortable.”

But Ellie’s memories of that harrowing week are happy ones and thinking of the squared-away soldier making purple sparkly slime with his daughter makes her parents smile, too. “That was the high point of her day—and my day, too,” Matt laughs—he is not a slime kind of guy—“but It really was great to sit there and do the projects with her, take her mind off of what was going on.”

Tia nods, serious again: “There is something so special about what Project Sunshine is doing. It might not seem like much, just a bottle of glue and some contact lens solution, but,” and she pauses, then echoes her husband’s words: “it made all the difference.”