IMAGINE SITTING IN Children’s Hospital with your ill, special-needs child after her umpteenth surgery – the child who doctors told you would never walk or talk. Your son is at home on the Northshore with needs of his own. At the same time, you are going through a divorce. What is on your mind? For Ann Ollendike, when despair could easily have overtaken her, she was called to carry hope to families like her own in their darkest of times.
“It’s a story of faith,” says the buoyant speech pathologist. “I had worked in hospitals so I knew what parents of sick children endure, but I never dreamed I’d have a child with disabilities. In 2008, as I sat with my daughter, Juliana, my eyes were opened to the needs of other children in the hospital and their families. I felt in my heart that I was chosen to help, and I wanted to be obedient to God’s will.” Despite having more than her own share of worries, Ann had a vision to create baskets filled with items for children and parents alike. “As a professional, I knew the value and impact of play therapy and wanted to include games and crafts to get the kids’ minds off their illness, helping them to heal. For the parents, I envisioned including items to bring encouragement and comfort, like books with uplifting messages and personal items.”
Understandably, with the demands of caring for her own family along with returning to work, Ann moved her charitable plans to the back burner having found starting from scratch too formidable. However, an unexpected source would offer a solution and remain woven throughout her endeavor’s success. She explains, “Our household loves football. In fact, Juliana’s first spoken word at 14 was ‘Touchdown!’” Having learned of Basket of Hope in 2009 through Kurt Warner’s Foundation, First Things First, when the Saints met the Rams in the playoffs, she realized it would be a perfect fit. “I could launch a local nonprofit chapter here without having to reinvent the wheel.”
In 2010 having raised the $10,000 startup fee and registering with the state, Ann founded Basket of Hope Louisiana and established a board of directors. From her first visit to Children’s Hospital New Orleans with just 12 baskets, her labor of love has grown to touch 720 families in 2019 alone. Additional hospitals currently served include Ochsner Baptist NICU, Ochsner Children’s, St. Tammany Parish Hospital, Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital, The Ronald McDonald House and Hogs Family Home. Following the example of the St. Louis Chapter, Ann recruited players and coaches from the Saints, Pelicans and LSU to personally visit and deliver baskets, delighting entire families and gaining valuable visibility.
“It’s so much more than just a basket,” Ann explains with heartfelt emotion. “Eight-year-old Maddy summed it up during her visit – ‘Wow is that for me?’ and shared ‘When I got my basket it made me forget about all that pain.’ Our visits are like Christmas for the patients, but we deliver throughout the year bringing unexpected love and joy.” Ann says the tears are near when you enter a hospital room with an isolated and lonely parent. Many don’t have faith, hope, or time for themselves and are wracked with worry about their child. “When this ray of sunshine comes in the room, the parents cry, ‘You have something for me? Someone is thinking about me?’ It’s pretty powerful.” Ann can relate to these weary parents and is called to nourish them mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. To their recipients, the ‘Hope Tote,’ filled with such items as inspirational books, soothing teas and self-care products are comforting in themselves, but also serve as a reminder that they are not alone. Ann believes as long as there is breath, there is hope. “My daughter is a testimony to overcoming odds. She is walking and full of joy.”
Ann made the leap of faith to resign from her job and lead Basket of Hope full time in 2018. Regarding current operations, Ann says they haven’t allowed Covid 19 to hinder their mission of hope. “We’ve continued to serve the community in our ‘Beyond the Basket’ efforts with hundreds of nourishment baskets for families and medical staff, provided meals and helped individual families with personal needs. We couldn’t bring hope without the individuals and businesses who value our mission and support us.” In her 10th year, Ann’s goal is to bring hope to 1000 hospitalized children and families. “Anyone can sponsor a basket and Hope Tote combo for $100 at labasketofhope.kindful.com. We value all gifts. It’s humbling and an honor to share my greatest gift from God – to give His hope and love to those who are sick.”
To learn more or to become a Hope-Giver, visit basketofhope.org/la or facebook.com/basketofhopelouisiana.