That Volunteering Spirit

Every Wednesday evening, if Craig Blower isn’t surrounded by a bunch of children, he gets a little antsy. That’s because playing with kids for hours at a time is what he’s supposed to do as a volunteer for Children’s Hospital and Health Center.

For seven years running, Craig has been making the weekly trek from Scripps Ranch to Children’s Hospital to offer his time, playful spirit, and compassion to thousands of youngsters overcoming traumatic injury or illness. His "office" is one of three playrooms in the hospital, designated oases where young patients–as well as their brothers and sisters–can go to break up the days and evenings of extended stays.

"The best nights are when there are a lot of kids in here," says the 20-year Scripps Ranch resident. "The time just flies."

For youngsters who visit Children’s playrooms, it’s like experiencing holidays and birthdays all over again. At their fingertips are a myriad of fun distractions including air hockey, art supplies, a jukebox, and computers–several of which Craig was instrumental in getting donated. And at the children’s beck and call are volunteers such as Craig whose only purpose is to entertain and delight kids often facing life-threatening disease and illness.

On one recent night, right after dinner, 9-year-old Vanessa Angulo sheepishly steps through the playroom door, pulling a mobile I.V. pole that connects her to medicines her family hopes will speed her recovery. Craig wastes no time in approaching her, but instead of looking down from the top of his 6-foot frame, he immediately bends over to meet Vanessa’s gaze.

"Hi, I’m Craig. What would you like to do tonight?" Vanessa has come with an armful of photocopies from a book on bats. Although she’s been in the hospital several days, the 3rd grader can’t dodge homework that’s due the next day. Page by page, Craig helps Vanessa painstakingly glue pictures and words onto colored paper and organize the assembly into an impressive report.

"We make a pretty good team, huh?" Craig asks Vanessa. She smiles. Craig’s volunteering at the hospital started more than 1,000 hours ago. He was introduced to the idea when his wife, Kim, became involved in the Scripps Ranch unit of the Children’s Hospital Auxiliary. It’s been like a faithful marriage since, says Craig, who’s received the "Volunteer of Excellence" award for his many contributions.

Katrinka Easterday, Children’s director of volunteer services, says of Craig: "His dedicated spirit is a valued gift here. He exemplifies all that’s admirable in a volunteer–loyalty, commitment, and a belief in service to others. He has a special sparkle that uniquely touches patients, their siblings, and parents."

Challenged to recall a particular child or story that stood out over the years, Craig struggles. It is easier to think of the many faces that have come to the playroom seeking distraction from discomfort or anxiety.

Many parents marvel at Craig’s ability to make their son or daughter laugh or giggle. "Some moms and dads have confided `I haven’t seen him do that in weeks’," Craig says, suppressing a lump rising in his throat. "That’s what keeps me coming back week after week."

Craig is hopeful that his own children, Bradyn and Brett, in seeing what their dad does every Wednesday, will catch the volunteering bug, too. But for Craig, there is no cure and he wants to keep it that way.

Larry Nuffer