For years, Lauri Ruonavaara organized a holiday donation program aimed to anonymously help local middle and high school-aged students in need, an age group she felt was particularly forgotten about during the holidays.
It started as a small personal project but quickly grew to include dozens of children across the Marquette County School District. In December 2016, Lauri organized a coat drive and identified at least 100 teens in need of warm clothing, according to the Mining Journal.
Leading up to Christmas, Lauri worked with school counselors to identify what exactly kids needed, as well as their ages, clothing sizes, and hobbies and interests. Once the kids’ needs were identified, Ruonavaara gathered community donations and funds to make sure that every child on her list would not feel forgotten that holiday.
Lauri continued her charity work until she passed away this past year. As this December drew nearer, a local teen and family friend of Lauri decided to pick up where she left off – and the staff of UP Health System – Marquette joined in to help.
Elena Henry, a 14-year-old student at Marquette Senior High School, first met Lauri several years ago when Lauri began working as a Nanny for her family. Elena began by sending some emails – starting with the counselors at Elena’s school. It was challenging for counselors to reach kids in need this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but soon the counselors were able to put together a list of kids’ needs. Next, Elena coordinated and collected donations. In honor of Lauri, Elena named her effort, Lauri’s Angels.
Elena’s mother, Dr. Heidi Henry, is a radiologist and mammographer at the Breast Cancer Center at UP Health System – Marquette. Dr. Henry asked her coworkers if anyone would be interested in helping, and she and her daughter were overwhelmed with the response. Word spread across hospital departments about Lauri’s Angels, and in no time, more than enough sponsors were found for every child on Elena’s list.
“It’s challenging to work in a hospital right now during the pandemic. It has been a stressful year for everyone. The staff here is working so hard, and they still donated their personal time and money to help kids that they don’t even know. It’s just amazing,” said Dr. Henry. Staff from all over UP Health System – Marquette and beyond reached out in support of Lauri’s Angels. Some gifts came from sponsors who work at the Upper Peninsula Regional Blood Center.
The Medical Laboratories of Marquette donated hundreds of dollars in support of Lauri’s Angels, so that every child would have all their needs met – no compromises. If the first sponsors could not afford everything on a child’s list, this money stepped in to fill the gaps. It also covered several last-minute entries to Elena’s list: the kids who applied late due to limited phone or internet access, or the kids who were under quarantine due to COVID-19.
Soon after Thanksgiving, donations began coming together. Dr. Henry could not believe how beautiful everything looked. Some gifts and wrappings were even thoughtfully handmade! One sponsor, Kim Maki, a PACs Administrator in the Radiology Department, learned that one of the middle schoolers loved Harry Potter and asked for a pillow. So, she made a pillow with a Harry Potter-themed print – plus a throw blanket, drawstring backpack, and cotton masks to match. “I love to sew, so I had fun making these pieces. I hope that they will love them,” said Maki.
“Once the team first heard of Lauri’s Angels, the excitement snowballed. I’ve heard this from everyone who donated: all of us have said how we wish we could be a fly on the wall when these kids open their gifts. The goal of making a difference in these kids’ lives – the kids in our community – that inspired everyone at UP Health System – Marquette to help,” said Danielle Haanpa, RN, BSN in the Cancer Center at UP Health System – Marquette.
Elena was excited to see all the gifts fill up her living room. “It feels good to help my fellow classmates. I hope Lauri would feel proud of how everyone came together,” said Elena.
After the success of this holiday season, Elena and Dr. Henry hope to continue growing Lauri’s Angels to ensure that middle and high school students all over Marquette County will never feel forgotten or left-out during the holidays.