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Jammies bring joy to hospitalized children

Glen Burnie woman's efforts to honor granddaughter who died from leukemia

By Nancy Jones Bonbrest, Special to The Baltimore Sun

December 4, 2011

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Four years ago, Glen Burnie resident Debi Katzenberger was finding it difficult to purchase the family's new Christmas pajamas. It was a tradition she had with her own children and passed along to her grandchildren.

But this was the first Christmas without her granddaughter, Kamryn Lambert, who passed away one month before her ninth birthday from complications of leukemia.

"My daughter asked me why I hadn't bought the pajamas, and I said I was having a hard time not buying any for Kamryn," said Katzenberger.

"She told me to go ahead and buy them anyway and I would figure out what to do with them."

So they decided to give them to a little girl in the hospital. From that gift, Kami's Jammies was born.

The program, administered by the Casey Cares Foundation, provides new pajamas for sick children on extended hospital stays in 20 area hospitals. At five of those hospitals, they also host regular pajama parties. This year alone they collected 4,000 pajamas. In total, 10,380 pajamas have been donated since the program began.

"When Kamryn was dying, I promised her I would honor her every day of my life," said Katzenberger. "So I knew I had to find something that would keep her memory alive and where people would learn about her."

Pajamas were a big part of Kamryn's life. With each new stay in the hospital, she would get a new pair. They made her feel special, and she was able to avoid wearing the dreaded hospital gown. After a while, the tradition became a way for Kamryn to not only express her individual fashion flair but to also find the most outrageous pajamas she could.

"She would make a game out of it," said Katzenberger.

To get the program off the ground, Kamryn's family raised $1,200 from a raffle and bought the first 100 pairs of pajamas. When it came time to officially launch the program, they turned to the Casey Cares Foundation, which had been there for the family during Kamryn's sickness.

"It was a nice fit for her coming to us and for us working the program into our mission," said Pam Goode, communications director for Casey Cares. "It's an extremely important program. It's hands-on with the kids, and it's just a warm and fuzzy type of program."

Kami's Jammies is one of six programs provided by the Baltimore-based nonprofit that helps critically ill children and their families.

Katzenberger volunteers 15 to 20 hours each week directing the program.

For the kids in the hospital who receive the pajamas, the gift brings a sense of normality, says Becky Halagarda, a child life specialist at the University of Maryland Children's Hospital, where Kami's Jammies hosts themed monthly pajama parties.

"The pajama parties are so important for kids for socialization reasons but also to know that there are other kids going through what they are going through," said Halagarda, who helped care for Kamryn when she was treated at the University of Maryland. "On top of all the practical reasons, it's also fun. It makes the hospital a little more normal."

For Katzenberger, who has nine surviving grandchildren, the program has been a godsend.

"I think it has saved me and has given me a way to keep my promise to Kamryn that she would never be forgotten," she said. "Some good has come out of this. I see the smiles on the kids' faces."

Kamryn's family, including cousins and brother C.J., remain involved in the program and help organize pajama donations and parties as well as a fundraising pajama fashion show each spring. New pajama donations are always needed in sizes ranging from infant to young adult.

The donated pajamas come rolled up with a ribbon. Inside is a picture of Kamryn and how to contact the Casey Cares Foundation.

Katzenberger said Kamryn, whom she describes as being the leader of the pack and a joy to be around, would have loved knowing her face was going out on every pair of Kami's Jammies.

"They look like a nice little present when we give them out," she said. "It's a present, a gift, a little comfort."

For more information or to hold a pajama drive, visit CaseyCaresFoundation.org or call 443-568-0064.