Kelsey Andrews, The Heart Of A True Mountaineer

Selflessness does not always come easy, but for 23-year-old Kelsey Andrews, giving back to her community has been a no-brainer for nearly a decade. In addition to being a fulltime student in the WVU School of Medicine (as well as a WVU alumna), Andrews is founder and coordinator of the charity Kelsey’s Christmas—a cause extremely close to her heart.

Q: What is Kelsey’s Christmas?

Kelsey’s Christmas is an organization that aims to bring the holidays to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh (though we are diehard Mountaineer fans). Every year we collect monetary donations, new toys, pajamas, socks and more. Our signature items are tie blankets that we hand-make for the kids, and last year, we made over 130 blankets with the help of a local high school. We use the money donated to buy toys (last year, we filled eight shopping carts at our local Kmart), and each toy we buy usually costs between $30 and $50. We take a U-Haul to the hospital and give our donations to the Child Life Staff so that they can distribute the presents with the help of the nursing staff. Our hope is that gifts remind the patients that people care about them and are thinking about them, and maybe the gifts can help them have just a few moments where they are kids again rather than patients.

On top of the donation to the kids, my mom organizes a donation of homemade food and treats for the ICU staff. We bring everything from homemade cabbage rolls to pizzelles and pumpkin rolls, enough for both the day and night shifts. We want to make sure that the ICU staff knows that the families are grateful for the care that they give their loved ones, even if they don’t always act like it. (Not to brag, but we also bring cookies and pumpkin rolls for the valet, security, front desk and the ICU waiting rooms because we know everyone in the hospital needs some sweets and a reminder to take a break every now and then.)

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Kelsey’s Christmas?

My older sister was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 19 years old, and our lives essentially stopped for the duration of her treatment. We are from Weirton, West Virginia so Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh was the closets hospital to us and where my sister was for the majority of her treatment. Her medical staff became like a second family to us, hence our desire to give back to Children’s every year. We spent every holiday from her diagnosis in June to her passing in January in the hospital, and we really did not have anything at that time to make the holidays meaningful for us. I have always believed that hope and faith are absolutely crucial in the healing process, and with the help of my mom, we came up with the idea of bringing the holidays to the hospital so that the patients know they are not alone in their time of need. Sometimes, something small makes a bad day bearable.

Q: How many years have you been doing Kelsey’s Christmas?

This is our ninth year!

Q: How has Kelsey’s Christmas grown or developed through the years?

Originally, the project was small and we probably raised less than $5,000 in total. It was set up as almost “Santa’s Helper” Workshop where the kids would come into the room while we were there, and pick their toys and maybe a gift for their siblings, too. Now, we raise over $20,000 annually and we need a 10-foot U-Haul to get all the donations to the hospital. We don’t get as much one-on-one time with the patients, but we now have a greater understanding as an organization that we don’t need to personally see the good we do in order to know it is done.

Q: What has been your biggest accomplishment or proudest moment through Kelsey’s Christmas so far?

My proudest moment was when we arrived to the hospital last year with the U-Haul. For years we borrowed friends’ vans and packed them as full as possible, but I finally decided we needed to consolidate so that we didn’t have as many vehicles on delivery day. The U-Haul was packed to the ceiling, and the staff’s jaws dropped when we opened it. To top it off, as we were unloading, the Child-Life staff introduced me to a 7-year-old cancer patient they saw checking out, and we let him pick a present before going home. He picked a 2.5-foot Batman, and he thought that we were joking when we said that it was really for him to keep. Moments like that stick with you for a lifetime.

Q: Who is, or who are, your most notable supporter(s)?

I would be absolutely nothing without the support of my mom and dad. My mom wakes up at 5 a.m. in the morning on Black Friday to buy the fleece for the blankets on sale, and she sends all the fliers for me because I’m busy with grad school. My dad gets his coworkers involved every year and is my go-to for manual labor tasks. My hometown is also really great. My sister was a senior in high school, salutatorian of her class and co-captain of the soccer team, in addition to being voted onto homecoming court. She was well known and well liked (though occasionally a bit of a pistol), and the town rallied behind her during treatment and continues to support us in her memory with donations. The local Catholic school Weirton Madonna makes the majority of our blankets, and Weir Middle has a donation drive for pajamas. Without all the support I receive, the project would still just be an idea in my head.

(Pictured above, Kelsey is standing to the right of her sister.)

Q: What do you hope to accomplish through Kelsey’s Christmas in the next five to 10 years?

It’s hard to put a fiscal goal on the project because there’s always room for improvement, but we have firm goals for the project’s reach. My goal is to expand the organization to a full-scale donation (similar to what we make to Children’s) to Ruby Memorial Hospital in the next five years. We currently make a smaller a donation of toys and crafts [to Ruby Memorial], but have struggled to find a foothold and reliable connections to enable the kind of donations we make to Children’s. I’m currently a second year medial student at WVU, and as I transition to more time in the hospital, I’m hoping to make more connections that I can use to involve the pediatrics floor at Ruby. My sister was planning on going to WVU and attending pharmacy school, so I think she would love the idea of bringing the organization here in her memory. The Nursing School of WVU already helps to make blankets, and we would love to see those all go straight to kids in Ruby.

We are also working on becoming a tax-deductible charity in order to benefit our contributors that give us so much and facilitate the project. I’m hoping that in 10 years, we have a formed a board of the people most involved in the project, as well as our major contributors. By organizing a board, we would hopefully be able to expand our reach to more hospitals, and also ensure the project continues even if my work in medicine becomes too time consuming to oversee the entire project myself.

Q: How can readers become involved in Kelsey’s Christmas?

We have a Facebook page that we post all of our updates on the project, as well as instructions for getting involved. Readers can message us on through the Facebook account, or if [readers] have any questions about what we do or how to help.

We also have a PayPal account for those that prefer online donations to checks.

We would love more WVU involvement in the future to enable the progress of our Ruby expansion, along with our ever-growing Children’s Hospital donations.