It takes a family to overcome a disease, and it takes a family to weave that recovery into a good deed for others.
Such was the case for the Graves family, who brought holiday cheer — in the form of toys and music — to patients in the rehabilitation unit at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for the 10th year on Monday.
The Pasadena family has a special bond to the hospital and the unit, which is where Chris Graves, now 22, stayed for several months when he was battling juvenile dermatomyositis, a rare auto immune disease, at the age of 13.
“It’s like, amazing,” Chris said. “We get more and more gifts every year.”
He eventually overcame the disease at age 15, though it kept him from walking or eating for a few months. However, following his recovery, a family friend, David Venghaus, suggested that the family do something for the patients who they had come to know during that trying time.
During the Graves’ annual holiday celebration that December, they collected toys to distribute at the unit. Chris had suffered from rashes, muscle pain and immobility throughout his illness, but he graced a wheelchair to help the family complete its newfound mission.
“Then, we just started coming every year,” Chris’ mother, Joyce, said.
The donations continue to be solicited through the Graves’ annual holiday party, and they are growing in number. Chris said the family had to rent a U-Haul truck to deliver the toys to Children’s Hospital this year.
“It means so much to us,” Joyce said. “It’s always bittersweet. We come back, and I just thank God we still have him.”
The Graves didn’t actually distribute the toys on Monday. Family members left that to Santa Claus, who spent some time with each willing child and gifted them their selection from the racks in the unit. Santa Clarita resident Hunter Hudson, 10, served as Santa’s Elf.
Nurse Phan Dang co-manages the rehabilitation unit, and said the Graves’ toy distribution is always helpful to the hospital and the children. She said donations are generally handled through the hospital’s foundation, but this event is unique.
“It’s so vital, especially during the holidays,” Dang said.
Some of the patients can’t go home for the holidays, so getting a present from Santa Claus can make all the difference, she said. Jimmy Nguyen, 5, of Reseda, was so excited on Monday that he lost his appetite, his father, Trong, said. Jimmy received a Nerf Blaster from Santa.
“He’s very happy,” Trong added.
A couple days before Santa’s visit, Chris and his brothers, Sean and Kevin, played music for the children. The three make up The Graves, which has a song titled, “The Beach Song”, featured in the film “New Year’s Eve”, starring Robert DeNiro, Halle Berry and Ashton Kutcher, among others. Venghaus is the manager of the band.
During the visit, the Graves brothers visited the room that Chris once occupied, and spoke with the little girl who stays there now. Sean said the visits help erase the heart-wrenching memories of Chris’ hospital stay many years ago.
“Now, it gets to remind us of this awesome fundraiser thing we do,” he said.
Joyce said the family will continue to have the donation drive and distribution as long as they can. She said the Graves are very thankful for the care Chris received, and they hope to continue to transform that gratitude into smiles for the foreseeable future.
“We’ll never forget it,” Joyce said.
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