LAKE WYLIE -- If anyone has an extra hour or two in their days, Melanie Conger could use them.
From raising five children to caring for a retired firefighting llama, working in a Gaston County emergency room to volunteering for vacation Bible schools, she tends to run out sometimes. Oh, and then there's the nonprofit group founded 11 years ago to give sick children toys.
"Our main focus right now is to place treasure chests at hospitals around the country," said Conger, a Lake Wylie resident for three years. "I'm either on the phone or Internet talking to hospitals at least two full days, probably 20 to 25 hours a week. And then more on weekends."
Yet all of the volunteering and speaking engagements -- even the llama -- are not obstacles for Conger's quest to grow The "I'm A Kool Kid" Foundation, but rather resources moving it forward and, especially in the case of her growing family, reminders of why she's doing it.
"It serves so many different purposes," Conger said of the treasure chests now located in six Carolina hospitals, with plans for three more. "What I've learned and my kids have learned is just the spirit of children who are sick. These kids have a spirit of hope like no other. They're usually in better spirits than the people looking after them."
Her daughter, Meredith, planted the seed for I'm a Kool Kid after a friend battling cancer was teased by classmates for wearing the same hat to school each day. Meredith and her mother, along with others, raised money to purchase new hats and had them autographed by local celebrities.
By the end of the day, Conger understood not only the power of giving to children who need it, but of children willing to help.
"You're never too young to make a difference," she said. "Having my 9-year-old, who's now a 22-year-old, start this is just amazing. It just shows that perseverance can make a huge difference in the lives of children."
Even for the emergency room nurse, who also works in husband Randy's chiropractic office, the emotional toll of leading a nonprofit for children with cancer is difficult -- not to mention the loss of foundation co-founder Pat Sink who died after an automobile wreck shortly after the group formed, or the occasional toy drive steered by student tragedy. Just last week, Conger hoped to finalize donations from Clover Junior High School collected in memory of Hunter Holt following his death in a wreck last month on N.C. 49.
"It's a sad time for the students, but that gives them an opportunity to turn that sadness into something positive," Conger said.
Yet for every challenge there is triumph, for every heartbreak a reminder of the foundation's importance. Lowe's Home Improvement helps build the treasure chests, and just last year a group known as Power of Ten from Fort Mill raised more than $10,000 for the foundation.
On June 6, Dilworth Coffee House in Lake Wylie will host its second annual CoffeeHouse Poker Run for the group.
Several Girl Scout, Boy Scout and Brownie troops, along with schools and church groups, also help. Seeing hand-colored cards for children with cancer and toy donations beyond the holidays -- because "kids are sick during the summer months, too" -- proves to Conger that I'm a Kool Kid is as much about teaching children who may never face cancer as it is for encouraging and supporting the ones who do.
Still, Conger sees doctors use those toys both to comfort hurting children and encourage them to recover, to be brave during a surgery, to follow their treatments. Something she could barely, if at all, imagine 11 years ago.
"Any month's supply of toys is wonderful," Conger said. "We started with hopes of filling one chest. We looked at it kind of on a small scale. Certainly we shoot for the moon."
More ways to help
It's a long way up to the fourth-floor pediatric wing at Piedmont Medical Center. But for countless children, some as young as three days and others as often as four times a day, trips past the check-in desk to the famous treasure box make their time there -- if only for a moment -- enjoyable.
"This has made a big difference, because it's child friendly," said Janice Hill, nurse manager at the Rock Hill hospital. "Anytime they have a procedure, the treasure chest is the first place they want to go."
Like the little girl who recently celebrated the removal of her Ivs by running through the hall yelling, "I'm free, I'm free!" The highlight of the end of her treatment, Hill said, was that familiar trip to the treasure chest.
Those stories are the ones that turn I'm a Kool Kid into a family passion. Even the seven acres of waterfront property the Congers call home came with the foundation in mind.
"That was part of our moving to this area, so we would have a place to host the parties," Conger said.
The Midwestern transplants who moved from Fort Mill envision children riding paddle boats and seeing Patty the llama, as well as the first summer camp this year once the Congers can plan it. And, of course, they'll look for more volunteers, adding treasure chests in more hospitals, more community partners and more children to understand how meaningful service to others can be.
If they can accomplish those goals, Conger can live without more of what she probably needs most.
"I wish there were more hours in the day," she said.
Want to help?
The June 6 Coffee House Poker Run, 4937 Charlotte Hwy., Lake Wylie, begins with registration at 8:30 a.m. and all bikes out by 10 a.m. An all-day ride travels 190 miles through the Lake Lure and Chimney Rock areas, ending with live music at the coffee house. Bands include The Shrubs at 5 p.m. and John Biggers at 6:30 p.m. Food will be served at 5 p.m., followed by drawings at 6 p.m. Cost is $20 per hand. Proceeds benefit The "I'm a Kool Kid" Foundation. For more information, call 803-656-5700 or visit lakewyliecoffeehouse.com.
Treasure chest donations may be made to hospitals or through the foundation. At Piedmont Medical Center in Rock Hill, which serves children ages three days to 17 at its pediatric wing, the biggest need is for boys toddler through age 5, such as cars and games. For more information about the foundation, call 803-802-5322 or visit imakoolkid.org.