The Easter for Eli organization delivers baskets of gifts to children who are hospitalized over the Easter holiday, and this year, a local business is serving as a collection site for hundreds of baskets organizers anticipate residents and organizations will create.

What started out as a way to brighten a little boy’s time spent in the hospital over Easter Sunday has now turned into a major operation with countless volunteers. Baskets being delivered to 16 hospitals across six states, and it’s growing by leaps and bounds every year.

Bedford auto dealer Thomas Chevrolet is participating in the basket-making, and serving as a collection site for what they hope to be a record-breaking number of donations.

Elias “Eli” Garrett was 2 years old when he was diagnosed in 2007 with non-Hodgkins T-Cell lymphoma. He died May 7, 2009, 10 days before he would have turned 4 years old.

In 2015, Eli’s father, Martin Garrett of Roaring Spring, started a way to honor the memory of his son. He had a goal of making 319 Easter baskets so he could have one to cover every bed at UPMC Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. Instead, 1,000 baskets were created and gathered to be distributed to the hospital where Eli once fought his disease.

“We give 750-plus now to them every year —we always more than double what they need,” Garrett said.

Eli spent two of his Easter holidays in the hospital, Martin said. Eli’s aunt, Linda Hinderhan, and other co-workers brought a basket to his son to cheer him up the first year. The second year, the family and their friends brought baskets for all of the children hospitalized there over Easter with Eli. Before long, Eli was picking out his favorite items, and giving the rest to the other children in the hospital with him, Garrett said.

“They’d bring their wagons over and we’d help them get items.”

Until his own son was sick, Garrett said, “I would have been blind” about how many children were in any given hospital at any given time.

“I wouldn’t have had any idea if it was 10 or 100 — I had no idea what went on in hospitals with kids.”

That changed for Garrett, as he now rattles off bed-count statistics for major children’s hospitals around the region.

Garrett moved onward to giving baskets to the Philadelphia Shriners, Hershey Children’s Hospital and Geisinger Danville Hospital. In his second year, Garrett set a goal of collecting 1,000 baskets. He received 1,800. By 2018, Easter for Eli hoped to gather 3,000 Easter baskets, but collected 5,100, according to Garrett.

Garrett said the hospitals are receptive to the baskets and that they make the necessary connections to get the baskets where they need to go in a timely manner.

“The staff is exceptional — the baskets help them to feel lightened too, and to see the joy in this,” Garrett said.

Garrett makes sure to spend an entire day at the Washington D.C. Children’s National Hospital every year.

“The staff has it coordinated and set up in advance,” he said, and often the staff comes in on their day off to help because they want to be part of the basket event, too.

Garrett said if sees a child or young person, even if they are not a patient, coming into or out of the hospital while he is there, he shares a basket with them. He also said that many families who make baskets do so year after year — often as many as 20-40 baskets at a time.

“They are the ‘repeat’ families. They tell me they want to pay it back by paying it forward.”

He has a new, long-range goal now.

“My goal is to be nationwide, with Easter for Eli baskets being delivered to at least one children’s hospital in every state by 2023.”

Anyone who is making the baskets is asked to include a variety of fun and functional items, like small toys, socks, card games, art supplies, books, and Play-doh. The baskets need to be labeled for a boy or a girl, and with the best suited age group from newborn to age 17. Baskets for teenagers are in the most demand since they are the ones least likely to be donated.

The gifts can include items the family that parents and other siblings may benefit from as well, like gas and restaurant gift cards. Food and candy cannot be included because of dietary restrictions and allergies often faced by patients. The baskets will be collected until March 30 at the dealership at 4003 Business Route 220.

The connection between Thomas Chevrolet and the organization began when Katie Weber, a member of the Thomas’ sales team, sold a vehicle to Garrett, according to Stephanie Martz, the general manager.

“Katie brought this customer to our attention,” Martz said, although she credits Stacy Bollman, the marketing director at the dealership, as the one at the helm of this project.

“Stacy is so engaged with the community,” Martz said, “and she finds opportunities for us.”

Garrett came out to Thomas Chevrolet on Monday, and saw the 100 baskets the Thomas team had made so far. He talked to the staff, got photos taken of the baskets collected, and heard more about their goals.

Morgan Fink, of Bedford, who works at the dealership, said she threw a basket-making party at her house last week. Karrie Berkeley, of Osterburg, her co-worker, showed up along with at least 13 other people. “We thought we’d make 30 baskets,” Fink said,” but we made 64.”

Weber had planned to attend, but instead ended up making eight baskets outside in her own driveway, where her young daughter couldn’t see what her mom was doing. Weber didn’t want her to see the Easter toys she was including in the baskets.

Bollman said when she first contacted Garrett about partnering with Easter for Eli, she told him, “We want to fill a truck.” According to her, he loved that idea.

Bollman said people in the Bedford County area have been very receptive, as well. The dealership has hosted a Facebook event and video, and have worked with the Everett High School National Honor Society.

Bollman said the Hometown Bank in Martinsburg has reached out to them too to ask how they can help. “We have a platform to reach a large number of people,” she said.

“I’d like to have 500 baskets,” Bollman said. “I’d like to fill that truck.”

Looking across the showroom floor, Weber said, “We have a lot of trucks we could fill.” Bollman agreed. “We could fill a lot of trucks with a lot of baskets.”

Garrett’s previous 5,100 baskets-record may not hold this year, meaning many more children and their families who find themselves in a hospital room over Easter will have a more joy, all because of a little boy who suffered, and because his dad won’t let anyone ever forget Eli.

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