A RAY OF LIGHT: Gift baskets boost children’s spirits in hospitals at Christmastime

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GREENFIELD — Alexis Cooper was just 7 years old when her baby brother, Connor, died shortly after birth in 2005, but she’s devoted herself to making sure his spirit lives on by showering other kids with kindness.

The 23-year-old Greenfield woman founded Connor’s Caring Hands five years ago, when she was a junior at Greenfield-Central High School. She’s been doing good works in her brother’s name ever since.

Connor’s namesake charity focuses on delivering gift baskets to children in the hospital over the holidays.

“Not every kid gets to go home at Christmas,” said Cooper, now a social worker with the Hancock County Department of Children’s Services.

When she first began charitable work in 2016, she originally thought of donating stuffed animals to children’s hospitals. Yet when donations of toys and art supplies began pouring in, she shifted the focus to gift baskets instead.

The first year she and her mom, Chasity Holt of Shirley, delivered about 100 baskets to children at Riley Hospital for Children n Indianapolis. They delivered a few more to young patients at Hancock Regional Hospital in Greenfield two or three times throughout the month of December.

“We also went on Christmas Eve to see if any new moms had delivered, because we had made newborn baskets as well,” Cooper recalled.

In recent years, she’s been able to visit even more hospitals and create gift baskets designed for five different age groups, from newborns to teens.

“Basically all of our baskets will include some type of game or activities that family members can participate in, and they’re all things they can do while in the hospital. They don’t have to go outside,” said Cooper, who pre-screens the items she’s bringing with the hospitals she serves each year.

Cooper has always had a soft spot for kids, and knew she wanted to work with children from an early age. Growing up, she’d help her mom entertain kids at her in-home day-care center.

Cooper was devastated when her little brother Connor died shortly after birth, in August 2005, due to complications from Down syndrome.

“She loves him more than I think anybody does. She wears dog tags with his name and footprints on them,” said her mom.

Holt said the first couple years of her gift basket outreach, Cooper got to be known around Greenfield as “the girl who does baskets,” so she encouraged her to give the charity a name. The loving sister named it Connor’s Caring Hands.

In 2019, Cooper added a new facet to her charity, expanding her fundraising efforts to include sponsoring two or three Hancock County families in need at the holidays.

“She sent parents the information and wanted to know what their kids wanted or needed for Christmas that they weren’t going to get otherwise,” recalled her mom. “When she got a list, we went out and wrapped it, met the parents, and gave them the presents so their kids would have plenty to open on Christmas morning,” Holt said.

One year, Cooper used her own money to buy gift cards, food and cleaning supplies for a single mother of three.

“She’s a very long caring young lady, and has done a lot from a young age to help others. I’m very proud of her,” her mom said.

Cooper said that delivering gifts to children in the hospital is the perfect way to honor Connor by combining two of the things she’s most passionate about — children and health care.

While she loves her job as a social worker, her work through Connor’s Caring Hands satisfies her desire to work with both.

When her brother Hunter was born 14 years ago and spent time in the NICU, she thought for a while that she’d become a NICU nurse. But she is now satisfied supporting children through social work as well as her Christmas gift basket ministry.

Each December, she not only delivers to Hancock Regional and Indianapolis-area hospitals, but also to the Day of Love and Caring event at the Hancock County Fairgrounds each Christmas Eve.

She’s gotten a lot of support from her family and friends in running the program over the past five years.

Both her mom and younger brother Hunter have helped out, shopping for the goodies that go in each basket, and helping to assemble and deliver them to local hospitals.

They do a lot of their shopping on Black Friday, scoping out deals and buying things in bulk.

“We load up the three vehicles just Black Friday shopping alone,” Cooper said.

When she first told her mom she wanted to expand the program to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital a few years ago, her mom immediately agreed, even after learning it was 500 miles away in Memphis, Tennessee.

The family loaded up their vehicles full of gift baskets and headed south at Christmastime, bringing along a couple of family friends who would come dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus.

They’d go in and line up the baskets by age, even setting up tables with coloring pages and crayons, so the children could stay entertained while they awaited their turn with St. Nick.

Once COVID hit, Cooper and her crew weren’t allowed to go into St. Jude, but they have continued the ministry closer to home. Cooper’s still hopeful she’ll be able to return to St. Jude next year.

Wherever her gift baskets are delivered, Cooper hopes they give children a ray of light in a less-than-ideal situation — spending the holidays confined to a hospital bed.

“Not that it’s going to make whatever they’re going through at that time better, but it will possibly give them a little something to lift their spirits around the holidays,” said Cooper, who manages all the charity’s fundraising and logistics.

To raise money for each basket of goodies, she hosts fundraisers two to three times a year at the Hancock County Fairgrounds, where she’ll bring various vendors together who are willing to share a portion of their proceeds with Connor’s Caring Hands.

Each vendor event also features some sort of entertainment for kids, like face painting, bounce houses, carnival games or water slides. In the fall, the nonprofit hosted a trunk-or-treat event.

After a brief break in late December, Cooper gets back to work each January, planning ahead for the year’s fundraisers and booking the space at the fairgrounds.

She plans to keep Connor’s Caring Hands going indefinitely, to keep her brother’s spirit alive.

“I would hope he would be happy about it,” she said, thinking of Connor.

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