When Pia Phillips was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2014 at the age of 14, she knew no one would better understand what she was going through than her best friend, Abbie Nelson.
Nelson had also been diagnosed with a chronic illness – Type 1 diabetes – just the year before, when she was 13.
Both born and raised in Minneapolis, the pair had had each other's backs since they were 4 years old, and their bond only strengthened as they spent many days together in children's hospitals, supporting each other through treatments.
"It was really unique and amazing to have this support system of someone who had gone through chronic illness, and just so happened to be my best friend too," Phillips said.
It was during Phillips' hospital stays that the girls starting talking about a gap they both saw in care for adolescent patients. Although there were many activities and donated items available to them, most were designed for young children.
"We both noticed this lack of comfort for teenagers and wanted to do something about it," Nelson said.
While helping the girls brainstorm how to get involved, Nelson's mother remembered a nonprofit that put together backpacks for homeless people. That concept became the inspiration to create custom backpacks loaded with goodies that would enhance a teen's hospital stay, and to distribute them in Minnesota.
Being only 14 and 15 at the time, Nelson and Phillips had help from their parents and experts to get the idea off the ground. By late 2014, PAB'S PACKS was founded.
Packed with care
The nonprofit is completely funded by donations from corporate sponsors as well as private donations.
Backpacks are custom-designed with the PAB'S PACKS logo (with "PAB" a combination of Pia and Abbie). Each item tucked inside is thoughtfully selected by Nelson and Phillips, from the stress ball (because Phillips is a self-proclaimed fidgeter) to one of Nelson's favorites, the journal.
"When I was in the hospital I would write questions to the doctor in a little notebook, because when the doctor comes in it's kind of a stressful time and you only get like 5 minutes of their time," Nelson said. "When Pia was diagnosed, I gave her a question notebook."
Each backpack also includes a fleece blanket, lip balm, J.R. Watkins lotion, a pre-stamped postcard so that recipients can write in with feedback, a "Pabby the penguin" stuffed animal, and a handwritten note from the girls or one of their friends or volunteers.
"That's one of the most meaningful things in the pack because it's the connection that's so important," Phillips said.
The first PAB'S PACKS were distributed in May 2015 at Children's Hospital in Minneapolis. They handed out 500 bags the first year, and have increased the number each year since, giving away 1,500 in 2017.
PAB'S PACKS are now available in all of the major Twin Cities hospitals, and the nonprofit has expanded distribution outside of Minnesota, at Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut, as well as camps in Des Moines, Iowa and Indianapolis.
"We're also shipping out to people who write us," Phillips said.
The teens told GoMN that getting to meet and spend time with the patients is the most cherished part of the process for them.
"A lot of times we are the first people their age they've met that've had the same experience as them with a chronic illness," Nelson said. "You just have this special connection."
They've made lifelong friends, such as Maria Bruno, who received her backpack during a hospital stay in 2015. She was 16 and had just been diagnosed with Lupus.
"I had been feeling so crummy the entire week that I was there," Bruno told GoMN. "They bring in like, library books and stuff like that but, obviously I'm 16 at the time so I don't really want a children's book to read, and so it was kind of just frustrating."
Bruno said her whole outlook changed when a volunteer dropped off a bag from PAB'S PACKS for her.
"When someone brought in a present and a package that was specifically designed for someone like me, it really just lifted my spirits, and I was just so touched by how there were girls out there that had gone through something like me and had turned a negative into something positive," she explained.
Bruno ended up running into the girls one day while dropping off paperwork at Children's Hospital, and they all exchanged phone numbers. Besides gaining two new friends, she's become an active volunteer and ambassador for Pab's.
These days, both PAB'S PACKS founders are in good health. Phillips, now 17, is in remission and will be heading to Emory University in Atlanta in the fall, while Nelson, now 18, is going to Tufts University in Boston. College will be the first time they have been apart in nearly 15 years.
They want to continue to grow the nonprofit, with a goal of having PAB'S PACKS available in all 50 states, and plan to keep attending handouts at their local children's hospitals.
Q & A
What did it feel like the first time you gave out the backpacks?
Nelson: We were just blown away by the reactions that we got from the kids, the nurses, and the staff. It was probably one of the best days ever. We were so happy with all of the work that we had done, and realized – this is going to keep driving us to work on this project.
Phillips: That day was kind of the catalyst that caused us to have the motivation to keep doing it. And every handout is the same feeling.
What's the most popular thing in the backpack?
Nelson: The blanket, definitely. The hospital blankets – not to be mean or anything – but they're not the coziest, and they're kinda itchy. I think the backpack itself is really nice for the kids to have, to always have packed and ready for their next appointment or hospital run that was unexpected.
Phillips: I always had a backpack or bag packed at any given time when I was in treatment, just because you never know, and that's definitely the case for many other kids. So it's nice to have that set thing that you know you'll have ready at any given moment.
What's next for PAB'S PACKS?
Phillips: We're on this next step of, how do we further continue with this foundation of empathy and connection. Because we can't be at every handout when we're growing at this pace and handing it to the actual kids, we wanted to try find some sort kind of middle ground to still have that ability, and now with social media it's so doable.
Nelson: It's the idea of creating some sort of platform for a community of chronically ill teenagers to connect and be able to relate to each other. We're not really quite sure what that looks like yet, but we're excited to be having initial conversations about it.
How can Minnesotans help support the cause?
Phillips: Check out our website. There are places you can sign up for a volunteer day, make a donation, or just learn more about what we do.