Philip Branch says nearly every year that he makes a Valentine's Day card for his late great-grandmother.
So when the idea came for Thomas Hart Benton Elementary students to make cards for cancer patients at Centerpoint Medical Center's Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute, the fifth grader was totally on board with the idea.
"Almost every year on Valentine's Day I make a card for her and I hang it up in my room," Philip said of his great-grandmother, who passed away from cancer when he was 4. "It was exciting, because I love helping people."
To commemorate the Independence School District's 150th anniversary and to take part in their annual "Kindness Matters" project week, the students at Benton Elementary made Valentine's Day cards in January to share with the oncology patients at the Cannon Institute last week and this week. Each grade made 150 for the 150th anniversary, totaling 900 in all.
Centerpoint is the school's Character Plus program sponsor, and last year the school had created care packages for the oncology patients at Christmastime. Kindergarten teacher Amy Arnote said the students were trying to think of another project and came up with the idea of sending Valentines.
Michelle Meyer, Centerpoint's director of cardiology services, who has visited the school often over the last five years because of the hospital's partnership with the school, was happy to hear of the new project, which also coincided with February being Heart Health Month.
"I was thrilled," Meyer said. "I'm at the elementary school every month and to see how engaged the kids and the staff are in heart health period, it was so great for them to reach out and to want to do something else for our patients. ... It just warms your heart knowing that their hearts are in the right spot, that they care about their community just as much as we care about them."
The students said the joy was simply in making the cards and knowing that they would spread joy.
"It was pretty fun because we got to make the other people feel special," said BreenaLyn VanArtsdalen, a third grader who said her grandmother had passed away last year because of cancer. "The best part was actually turning them in because it was so exciting. ... It was pretty fun to see that the Centerpoint people came and they kind of looked excited about it."
Philip was also happy to help to honor his late great grandmother.
"It was exciting, because I love helping people," he said. "If we were able to see their reaction, that would be the best part. But making them was also the best part for me."
Arnote said the teachers helped them get started on the decorations and suggested some phrases, but that the students did most of the work themselves.
"Every one was different," she said. "Since I have kindergarten, we found some sayings and cut those up and they got to put them in there, and they got to do all the decorating and write their names. The older grades, the kids got to write what they wanted.
"It's to spread kindness, and we wanted to do something outside of Benton, because we work really hard to be kind to each other here, so we just wanted to share it, and Centerpoint is our character sponsor, and we try to reciprocate when we can."
In fact, the staff at the Cannon Institute was so touched by the gesture, that they decided to return the favor to the children, making more than 450 Valentines, which they presented to the school on Monday.
"The patients love them," said Baylie Mueller, who is director of oncology services at the Cannon Institute. "One of our employees, Letah (Black), who's worked with Centerpoint for a really long time, she said, 'You know what, we should send those kids valentines back. They've done really nice things for us with the care packages and now with the valentines. We should do something for them.'
"The patients have really loved them," Mueller added. "... We have patients who have come back this week and say, 'Oh, I have them on my refrigerator,' or that they're hanging them up. It's just something nice to receive."
Several patients received the cards on Monday afternoon while they were receiving their chemotherapy treatments, and several got emotional when the cards were presented.
"In these times, they're always stressful, so it really goes right straight to your heart," said Peggy Woolery, a patient from Raytown. "It's made me kind of choked up. The kids are great, and they're doing these kinds of things, and the idea that they have thought so much about other people, it's wonderful."
A card that Woolery received said: "Praying that you will get well soon and experience the joys of getting healthy again. I'm really sorry to hear of your illness. We're all thinking of you during this time and hope your recovery is a speedy one."
"That's just great," Woolery said after reading the card. "... I'm at the end of my treatment, so I've had a little lift (from that) today, and this is even better."
Sherry Hall, a patient from Oak Grove, said it must have felt good "because my cheeks hurt (from smiling so much) and I've got tears. You don't realize how much it does mean to you. ... I think it's pretty tremendous."
So did Kale Payne, a patient who lives in Independence, and his wife Carolyn, who had trouble speaking because she was overcome with emotion.
"It's very nice that young children do things like this. It shows that they care," Kale Payne said. "And I'm sure everyone who got them appreciates them. It was very nice. ... It makes you smile.”
And Philip was happy to hear the cards were being sent by the Centerpoint staff.
"I was shocked to be honest because I didn't think they would do that," he said. "But knowing that makes me really happy that they care that much about us."
The feeling is mutual.