Sick children need extra reasons to smile and feel special.

Valentine’s Day is the perfect day to shower these children with gift boxes filled with treasures like teddy bears, Hello Kitty coloring books, and candy hearts, says Greg Margida ’16, 20, a second-year Grinnell College student who created The Valentine Project.

Volunteers armed with just a child’s name, age and gender, this year decorated and filled gift boxes for more than 200 children whose lives have been affected by chronic illnesses. Siblings of the sick children also get gifts.

 “You’ll always know that kid’s name and that you made a difference for them,” says Margida. “Just for that one day, you made them smile. That’s kind of a priceless thing.”

Margida is a native of Alliance, Ohio. The project, in its fourth year, will benefit participants of Ohio’s Camp Quality, a weeklong camp for sick children and their siblings where Margida and his family volunteer. Donations also help children at the Akron Children’s Hospital. Margida developed the project with the help of a camp director, and his mother and sister help manage it.

When Margida was 13, he met a 13-year-old girl and her five younger siblings. The girl had cancer and was at the camp. Margida became aware of the toll hospital visits and chemotherapy can take on a family. He turned into an act of reaching out, or social responsibility, characteristics that are decidedly Grinnellian.

For a moment, a toy or a funny Valentine’s card can ease the mind, giving a lift to a child who may not hear from friends on Valentine’s Day. 

“Rather than focusing on the illness, it’s more about focusing on them being a kid,” says Margida.

Word about the project has spread through Facebook and Twitter and he hopes more people will join. Volunteers select a child from a spreadsheet and mail the gift to Margida’s home in Ohio. His mother and sister prepare the packages. A courier service donates the cost of shipping the packages to the children’s homes, he says. The project has received boxes from across the country, including Texas, California, and Washington.

Grinnell students also helped by making 200 decorated cards that will go in each of the gift boxes. One student drew a dinosaur that read, ‘You’re Dino-mite, Valentine.’

“That’s what I love about Grinnell,” Margida says. “Everybody is creative.”

In the coming years, Margida hopes to attain nonprofit status for the project so he can seek grants. He may change the project’s name to cover more holidays. He’d also like to expand the project to help children from other states and countries.

Margida is amazed that so many people will help children they’ve never met.

“It’s an act of love,” he says. “It’s just a great thing to see people get involved with this.”

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