If you spot a child wandering the hallways of Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa or the Phoenix Children’s Hospital pulling a wheeled suitcase or tote bag behind them, there’s a pretty good chance the case came from a Valley family.
About 3,000 Kenzie’s Kases have been given to children in 13 years since Denise and Richard Monks, and their daughters Michelle and Mandy, established a foundation to honor McKenzie Monks. McKenzie died from cancer in August 2003, at age 4.
McKenzie was 3 when she was diagnosed with bilateral Wilms tumor – cancer in both of her kidneys. After 19 months of treatment, including 60 radiation treatments, 10 surgeries and a bone marrow transplant, McKenzie died.
In spite of their grief, the Monks knew they wanted “to do something in her name,” Denise said.
“We knew we couldn’t raise enough money to make a difference in research,” Denise said. So, they created the McKenzie Monks Foundation. The foundation has two major efforts. It built two facilities at the two hospitals. Kenzie’s Korner is at Cardon Children’s Medical Center and the Kenzie Center is at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Both are intended to be places for sick kids to relax, have fun and be kids, Denise said.
Kenzie’s Korner is on the seventh floor of Cardon. That floor is a clean unit and not open to everyone because the patients there have higher susceptibility to germs and viruses.
“It’s an incredible space,” Cardon Child Life Specialist Tracey Hawkins said of the foundation, adding that they also have an ongoing program – Kenzie’s Kases – that helps children at both hospitals. McKenzie underwent her treatment at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. The Monks family lives in Fountain Hills. But, Denise said, they wanted to help children, no matter what hospital they were at, so they deliver Kenzie’s Kases to patients at both hospitals and created the special rooms at both sites, too.
McKenzie always pulled her Hello Kitty suitcase through the hospital hallways. It was filled with things to keep her busy and provide her comfort while she was hospitalized.
A photo of McKenzie pulling that tiny suitcase is prominently displayed at the foundation office. That image stuck with the Monks. So, they chose to create “Kenzie’s Kases” to help children cope with the long days of battling cancer.
Hospital employees notify the foundation when young patients are going to spend some time in the hospital. All Denise wants to be told is the child’s gender, age and interests. She then “shops” in the foundation’s office and readies a Kenzie Kase for the patient. Denise shops for toys, bags, blankets, games, jewelry and everything else to go inside of the cases all year. The items are stored at the foundation office, so when the hospital calls, she can prep and deliver a case quickly.
About 3,000 Kenzie Kases have been distributed since 2004. Each case includes either and iPad or a DVD player. Younger kids get the DVD players and iPads go to kids 4 and older.
The suitcases include blankets, toys, movies, purses, games and anything else that Denise and her daughters believe will help the recipient.
She estimates each case contains items valued between $600 and $800.
Because the Monks spent plenty of time in a hospital with McKenzie, they have a good understanding of what a child would like in his or her suitcase, Hawkins said.
“They bring bags geared to kids who are staying overnight or just a few hours,” Hawkins said.
The bags are much more than just a filled suitcase, Hawkins said. “The outside pockets are stuffed full and usually things like stuffed animals are tied to the top of the suitcase.”
Even the bags are a great gift, Hawkins said. “A lot of the bags are designer bags.”
The foundation is funded by the Monks family and through private donations. For several years, Richard and Denise sponsored a golf tournament to raise money for the foundation, but that has been discontinued.
“We were lousy at fundraisers,” Denise said, with a laugh. Instead they chose to carefully spend the donated money they receive to continue the Kenzie Kase program.
The golf tournaments did raise $1 million for the two rooms at the hospitals.
Running the foundation and helping children gives Denise a sense that McKenzie is still helping people, and that makes her happy.
“As a mom, you don’t want to forget,” she said. “So many people celebrate McKenzie today. It feels good that people remember. She’s living on to make these kids happy.”
Hawkins said the care that Denise puts into filling every Kenzie Kase is obvious.
“They put a lot of love and heart into those bags. They honor the patient,” Hawkins said.
“The patients love them,” Hawkins said. “They’re so customized. Their reactions are truly priceless.”
At Cardon, hospital employees take photos when the cases are delivered and share those images with the foundation. Denise has dozens of those photos displayed in her office.
It seems the least the hospital can do, Hawkins said.
The Kenzie Kases show “just how wonderful and selfless this family is,” she said. “They took a tragedy and made something good of it. They touch many lives.”
– Shelley Ridenour is a freelance reporter for MyNewsMesa.com.