Katie’s Heart is a nonprofit that was started 10 years ago when Katie Sutherland was a toddler and wondered how Santa Claus would visit her and other children hospitalized over Christmas.
Santa didn’t appear and when Katie was released, she constantly asked her mother, Dottie Sutherland, why he didn’t come.
“She would say well, maybe he couldn’t land on the roof; maybe they don’t allow reindeer in the hospital,” Dottie said. She finally asked Katie if she wanted to play Santa the following year and Katie said yes, marking the beginning of Katie’s Heart, an organization that donates toys to children in need.
Katie, now 13, and her mother, have been delivering toys ever since.
“I thought this was a one-time thing.” Dottie Sutherland said. “No.”
“It’s like a long-time thing,” her daughter added.
Katie’s Heart has expanded its giving beyond hospitals during Christmas time. It now supplies toys to any place in need, including ambulances and other charities.
Donation boxes for Katie’s Heart have found their way into about 50 Tucson locations, including Starbucks, Fry’s, Safeway, Chick-fil-A and stores, like Mildred & Dildred.
Dottie Sutherland asked Autumn Ruhe, owner of Mildred & Dildred, a local toy store, if a donation box could be put in the store since her daughter spent a lot of her time there.
“We already knew them from just hanging out and playing games in the store,” Ruhe said.
Mildred & Dildred became a big supporter of Katie’s Heart.
“It was a local charity and it was just a mom and a daughter. It was cool that it was such a small scale, like a labor of love,” Ruhe said.
Ruhe special orders toys for the organization and has set up carnivals for fundraisers.
“I feel like I have some tools at my disposal in terms of owning a toy store and I think it’s important to give back to the community,” Ruhe said.
Mildred & Dildred plans to hold another carnival to benefit Katie’s Heart and the other organization it supports, Make Way for Books, a charity that promotes early literacy.
Katie’s Heart stepped up its donations to Southwest Ambulance after toy distributions from emergency medical personnel became more personal for Katie.
Christina-Taylor Green, the youngest victim in the Jan. 8 Tucson shooting spree, was a classmate of Katie Sutherland.
“My friend had to go on an ambulance and I don’t think she got a bear,” Katie said. Providing toys for ambulances became her focus.
Katie still has the bear she was given when she was taken to the hospital in 2003 during Christmas.
Rich Douglas, a paramedic, said that a toy is the best way to help calm a child, such as a boy who had to be taken to Phoenix, covered in burns. His parents were unable to ride in the ambulance with him due to the severity of his condition.
“If it wasn’t for the little stuffed animals and things like that we would have nothing to calm a kid down. So by giving them those and letting them hang onto them, it kind of makes them feel like maybe they’re at home,” Douglas said. “It’s the next best thing to having a parent there.”
Southwest Ambulance transports about 700 pediatric patients a year and must keep its ambulances stocked with stuffed bears and toys for kids, whether they are patients or involved with a patient.
“There’s constantly going to be a need. That’s not something we can make go away,” said Brittney Wilson, a spokeswoman for the company.
Katie Sutherland frequently comes up with new ideas to help cheer children up, such as putting on costumes.
“It’s really cool to see someone as young as Katie who is interested and so passionate about it,” said Ruhe. “It’s cool to see that she still cares. I think that really speaks to her character.”
Katie plans to continue delivering toys for as long as she can.
“I like to see the smiles on those kids’ faces every time I come in,” Katie said. She and Dottie can spend about 20 hours per week with Katie’s Heart during the busier months. They both spend their Christmas Eve making toy deliveries.
“Kindness matters,” Dottie said.