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The Angels Among Us

by on December 16, 2013 6:00 AM

One person can make a difference.

For this week's installment of columns featuring our neighbors and community members doing good work for others, the impact goes beyond the Centre Region.

Meet Cindy Kolarik.

From her home in Port Matilda, Cindy helps people reach out to children who are most in need of support and encouragement. Her influence has extended to 40+ states, four countries and over 100,000 kids facing medical care or treatments.

Cindy is the unpaid administrator, volunteer public relations manager and the driving force behind The Jared Box Project.

Jared Boxes are plastic shoe box style containers that are filled with toys, games, art supplies and a message about the little boy for whom the project is named.

Jared McMullen, of State College, was just 5 years old when he was diagnosed with brain cancer. When he received treatments at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, he would take toys and games in a backpack to make the time, the travel and the discomfort more manageable.

When Jared lost his courageous struggle at age 6, Cindy and some of the other families at Our Lady of Victory School wanted to do something in Jared's honor.

Without direction and support, some good ideas and efforts to help others become a fond memory. Time. Busy Schedules. Enthusiasm. Focus. Without Cindy, The Jared Box Project would likely have been a good idea that faded away over time as so many good ideas do.

The Jared Box Project is unusual in that it isn't about money and all efforts are directed toward local children. For example, a civic organization in California builds Jared Boxes, using the directions and printable stickers and notes about Jared from the website, and then delivers those boxes to their local children's hospital or treatment center right there in California.

Cindy estimates, based on the emails and cards that she receives, that Jared Boxes have been made in at least 40 states and number over 100,000 although it's hard to count. Although the website encourages people to share their Jared Box stories, she often learns about new groups who have joined the project through the internet.

The pictures that parents and Jared Box builders send are heart wrenching. Little bodies, hooked up to to tubes and machines, some without hair, smiling from their hospital bed as they hold their Jared Box on their laps.

The cards and notes from parents are even more powerful. Just last week, the mother of an 18 month old who lost his battle with an immunodeficiency disease shared that she and others planned to deliver 200 Jared Boxes to the Janet Weis Children's hospital at Geisinger.

People share stories of Jared Boxes as annual philanthropy projects. Others send pictures of birthday parties where children asked for "no presents" but requested items to build Jared Boxes. A Fall edition of the Youth Soccer Association magazine featured a youth soccer player who built 200+ boxes for her community pediatric hospital. The Kings College baseball team sends pictures every year of their presentation of Jared Boxes to their local pediatric unit.

Girl Scouts of America and individual Girl Scout troops all over the United States have eagerly embraced The Jared Box Project. Cindy recently learned that a new patch is available for Girl Scouts to wear on their sash that says "I participated in The Jared Box Project."

I first met Cindy years ago when our oldest girls were toddlers. We kept bumping into each other as we did the pre-school parent circuit of gymnastics, birthday parties and other kid activities. Originally from West Virginia, Cindy grew up in Morgantown, a university community not unlike State College.

She graduated from West Virginia University in 1983 in accounting and earned her MBA from WVU in 1985. She met her husband Joe when both were working at Ernst and Young in Pittsburgh.

Daughter Lauren, who graduates from Penn State next weekend with both her Bachelor's and Masters degrees in Accounting, was barely walking when they moved to State College for Joe's job. Their son Joseph is a junior at State High and was my son's favorite co-Power Ranger for many years. The Kolariks are actively involved in Our Lady of Victory church. Cindy is the often the first to offer help, bring a meal or send a card to someone who needs it.

Cindy was the first person I called when my father passed away. My life has been enriched by her friendship.

Like most people who give of themselves and give to others, Cindy doesn't do it for recognition. "This is one of those things that you give a dime and get $1,000 in return" she says. "I try to make it a point to go online each week just to check to see if there are any new reports of Jared Boxes. It brings me to tears when I see pictures of college baseball players with their stack of Jared Boxes or I learn of a Girl Scout troop who donated 167 boxes in New Jersey. I am amazed at the power that our community effort has had and that Jared's memory can still live on."

Despite encouragement from me and from others to use some of the donations that come in or to apply for grants to make her position official, Cindy won't do it. She says "I'm afraid by making this my job it would ruin it." With help from Joe, The Jared Box Project applied for and was granted official IRS 501(3)(c) status but she takes no salary and they have minimal administrative costs. Companies like Sterilite and others have come on board to help with donations of supplies.

With so many local groups doing Jared Boxes, Cindy will sometimes put out the call to see if anyone in her network has travel plans to Hershey or Danville to drop off Jared Boxes. I have loaded my car on numerous occasions to take them to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The Child Life Specialists who work in oncology, pediatrics and even the emergency rooms know about and appreciate Jared Boxes.

Fun in a plastic box can make the difference for an infant, toddler, child or teen who is hurting.

You can find out more about The Jared Box Project on the organization's website by clicking HERE. You can also like the group's Facebook page by clicking HERE.

Cindy Kolarik. An angel among us.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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