When a young family member, Malia, was diagnosed with leukemia, Caryn Bothman and her daughters wondered how they could possibly help. Their creative solution has spread joy to countless hospitalized children and families.
For Caryn, cancer first hit close to home when, as a teenager, her father was diagnosed with lymphoma. Vivid memories of his sickness and chemotherapy treatments sparked a special compassion for the struggle facing Malia.
Together, Caryn and her daughters brainstormed ways they could relieve some of the burden on Malia and her family. Inspired by the creativity of her children, Caryn landed on the idea to fundraise for Malia’s treatment by selling $10 manicure kits, aptly named “Tough as Nails.” It did not take long for the kits to gain traction. Generous strangers from Texas to New York City contributed by purchasing kits, uplifting the family’s spirits and raising thousands.
“It was so inspiring for my daughters and family,” said Caryn. “People we never met before were asking for updates. It really touched our heart.”
The success of the project left Malia feeling famous and gave her family a tangible and joyful activity in the midst of a nightmare. Awed by the outpouring of support, Caryn began to imagine how Tough as Nails could expand to reach more families and children battling cancer or other serious illnesses.
“One thing families always need for long days in the hospital is something to do,” said Caryn.
The creative, tactile nature of the kits made them the perfect solution for brightening the long, treatment-filled days of children like Malia. In 2018, Caryn established Tough as Nails as a nonprofit, distributing craft and activity kits in hospitals and organizations across the Inland Northwest and beyond. From idea to delivery, each step of the Tough as Nails process is powered by volunteers and the imagination of the kids they serve.
“Our kits are created by kids for kids,” said Caryn. “Kids just know what they enjoy doing better than adults can guess.”
Ideas for the kits are submitted by children and brought to life by Caryn and volunteers from the community. Canning ring suncatchers, aquariums in a bottle, syringe art, paper tube monsters, terrariums and do-it-yourself comic books are just a few of the imaginative kit ideas Tough as Nails has delivered.
Once a kit idea has been approved, individuals, businesses, schools and families volunteer to prepare and pack the kits, including a “wish tag” with a handmade drawing or note of encouragement.
“We want to give anyone, of any age, the opportunity to help,” said Caryn.
A folded crane kit, one of the organization’s early kit projects, set the example. After 3 months of folding events at libraries and parks, community members folded 1,000 cranes in honor of the legend that if you fold 1,000 cranes, you get a wish granted. Each kit included a crane hand-folded by someone in the community, origami paper and folding instructions to make your own.
Whether they are folding cranes, writing on wish tags, hosting packing parties, mining craft stores for kit materials or donating directly, the community leaves their mark on every kit.
For those recipients, it is easy to feel the heart behind it all.
“Caedmon was given an activity pack after his tube change at the hospital today. He was so excited about the craft,” said the mother of a recipient. “I’m so grateful for people who try to help make yucky experiences a little better.”
Beyond creating fun experiences and memories, the kits can also boost well-being. Studies indicate that art in healthcare settings reduces admittance times, anxiety and pain levels, while also providing a healthy way to process trauma.
The kits have been a hit with both kids and staff, including therapists, patient advocates and child life specialists, who utilize the kits in their work with young patients.
Caryn hand delivers each shipment, developing long-term connections with the staff at participating hospitals and nonprofits.
“Our contacts continue to partner with us in selecting kits, sharing essential health and hospital insight and speak highly of our donations and products,” said Caryn.
Partnership with hospitals, community members and volunteers informs every aspect of Tough as Nails, including fundraising. Direct donations, sponsorships and grantmaking keep the kits in the hands of kids. This year, a grant from Innovia made their most recent kit, a make-your-own cuddle blanket, possible.
“This funding allows us to continue providing quality kits that are safe and effective in creating a moment of joy, connection and healing during stressful situations,” said Caryn of the recent grant.
With a whole community standing behind her, Caryn is hopeful for the future.
“Tough As Nails will always be a passion project for me,” said Caryn. “At the end of my day and at the end of my life I want to spread as much love and joy into this world as I can.”
As a busy, working mom of three, every moment she spends operating the organization or driving to deliver kits is volunteered. Eventually, she dreams of developing the capacity to operate with full-time staff and dedicate a space for operations and packing. One day, she hopes a permanent endowment will sustain Tough as Nails for future children and families.
“This isn’t meant to be a mission that begins and ends with me,” said Caryn. “I’m simply the caretaker of it for the time being. I get to give it wings and then I hope one day to watch it fly!”