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Catonsville woman aims to comfort children not just during holidays

Foundation provides Pillow Pets to sick children at five area hospitals

By Brian Conlin, bconlin@patuxent.com

2:19 PM EST, November 21, 2011

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A year after distributing 250 Pillow Pets to patients at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, Michele McFarland said she plans to triple that number this Christmas.

Already in charge of an army of 1,400 of the plush stuffed animals, the Catonsville resident said she intends to amass a large enough reserve so she can give them to young patients at five area hospitals no matter the season.

"We've been very busy in the last several months trying to figure out how to make this a year-round program," said McFarland, who started the Touching Lives With Comfort Foundation with her husband, Brian.

"Because of this goal, my husband, Brian, and I felt that the establishment of a foundation would create more credibility when reaching out into the community to obtain donations."

McFarland noted the foundation likely would give her more credibility as she seeks donations and when she goes to hospitals.

McFarland has committed to distributing Pillow Pets to children at Johns Hopkins, Saint Agnes Hospital, University of Maryland Children's Hospital, Greater Baltimore Medical Center and Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital this holiday season.

"We're finding that they're going to go really fast," added McFarland, who has two children, Chloe, 8, and Liam, 5. "We've got some stock. We want to keep that momentum going."

Much of the stock, McFarland said, came in September from CJ Products, the manufacturer of the $15 toy.

CJ Products told McFarland that they would donate 1,400 Pillow Pets to her cause if she became affiliated with a nonprofit organization.

McFarland teamed with the Casey Cares Foundation in Arbutus, an organization that provides special programs to critically ill children.

"Michele contacted us because she's working to get nonprofit status for her charity," said Erin Ritter, a program development director at Casey Cares. "It's a very cool partnership because we wouldn't have requested this kind of donation because it just didn't dawn on us."

Ritter noted that she has 20 boxes of 12 Pillow Pets in her office, and they take up so much room that she places sticky notes on the boxes to remind her of meetings.

Ritter said Casey Cares has given out about 50 of the Pillow Pets so far and will give out more at its holiday party on Dec. 10.

McFarland said she has already found "homes" for 1,000 of the Pillow Pets she received.

They are an especially nice treat for children who can't leave the house because they have weak immune systems, Ritter noted.

"When it's difficult to provide an activity, it's nice to give them something," Ritter said. "It really is a great pick me up."

"The 3-year-olds love the Pillow Pets, but we have 15-year-olds who couldn't have been more excited to get a Pillow Pet," she said.

To Annie Beatson, a child life specialist at Johns Hopkins, McFarland's Pillow Pets benefit more people than just children.

"Having that amount is really something that we'd never be able to do ourselves," said Beatson, who noted the hospital has 140 beds. "(It's) really special in the terms that it can provide a positive memory for our patients and families."

Since Pillow Pets come in a variety of forms, including puppies, ladybugs and pandas, Beatson said the pets allow patients to express their personality along with brightening up the sterile environment of a hospital room.

McFarland's motivation in pursuing this project is simple.

"They're going through a difficult time," McFarland said of the patients. "(The Pillow Pets) provide them with a little bit of comfort. It gives them a little smile. It helps them feel like kids."

The Touching Lives With Comfort Foundation may soon offer more than just Pillow Pets.

McFarland said she is considering providing gift bags for young patients and starting Kapes for Kids, which would allow the patients to pretend to be super heroes.

"We want to make it bigger and reach out into the community more," McFarland said about her foundation.

The first place many Catonsville residents will see the foundation's reach into the community is at the tree lighting on Nov. 26.

The foundation, McFarland said, will have a bin next to Santa's house where people can donate Pillow Pets to the cause.

The foundation will also have bins at Catonsville Gourmet, Catonsville Hair Company and McFarland & Masters law firm on Frederick Road, McFarland said.

Donations can be sent by mail to 920 Frederick Road, Catonsville, MD 21228. Checks should be made out to the Touching Lives With Comfort Foundation.