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Happiness, Delivered: How One College Basketball Player Is Making Hospitalized Kids Smile

If you could have three wishes, what would they be?

For Atlanta-born Tanner Smith, the answer was clear from a young age. First, he’d want a golden retriever, he wrote in a fourth-grade essay called My Three Wishes. Second, he would play basketball in the NBA. And lastly, he’d help kids with cancer by making them laugh.

A little more than a decade later, Tanner is turning these wishes into reality. His family still has Griffy, their Golden Retriever (that wish was easy to grant, say his parents). Tanner plays hoops for Clemson University — and his friends and family believe he could go pro one day. And Tanner’s Totes, the non-profit organization that

Tanner started with his family at age 12, delivers gifts to young, hospitalized patients across the nation, helping brighten their day — and possibly even improve their recovery.

From Dream to Reality: How Tanner’s Totes Got Started

When Tanner was 2 years old, his father Craig Smith was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. An only child, Tanner grew up watching his father undergo aggressive cancer treatments, eventually having to leave his career as a dentist and skip out on family vacations and his favorite activities, like golf and skiing.

As Craig went in and out of the hospital (he’s now cancer-free, but still deals with Graft-versus-host-disease, a complication in which his white blood cells attack his own body), Tanner took note of one thing that always managed to make his father smile — no matter his health status.

“If anything was sent [to my father] — any card, any flower, anything with color — it was immediately on the walls,” Tanner says in the next episode of Everyday Health, airing October 8 or 9 on your local ABC station. “It was immediately by the bed and immediately there to cheer him up.”

And that got Tanner thinking: What if there was a way to spread that kind of joy to kids? His parents thought it was “cute” when he first wrote in the fourth grade about wanting to help children with cancer, but when he mentioned it again in the sixth grade, they paid attention.

“My parents sat me down and asked me if it was something I really wanted to do. So we started brainstorming,” says Tanner.

After speaking with a family friend who worked with a children’s hospital, the Smiths learned that hospitalized pre-teens and teens often get looked over in terms of care packages and cheer compared to younger children.

So at the age of 12, Tanner filled up some tote bags with goodies (gifts that the Smiths purchased themselves), and he made his first delivery to Scottish Rite Hospital in Atlanta — Tanner’s Totes was born. Nine years later, the goodie-filled tote bags get sent to 29 children’s hospitals across the United States, from Orlando to Seattle to

Honolulu — and the organization is continuing to grow. To date, more than 2,000 totes have been delivered.

What’s In a Tote?

“Tanner’s Totes are all about color,” says the 6’5” college basketball player. “They’re all about excitement; they’re all about fun. And that’s exactly what the hospital isn’t.”

What type of knickknacks get included in a Tanner’s Tote (a canvas bag that’s screen-printed with images of — what else? — a golden retriever and a basketball)?

Peek into one of the boys’ bags, and you may find basketball trading cards, a dry erase board, a Clemson hat, and other colorful trinkets. Girls’ totes are filled with items like markers, manicure sets, Frisbees, and disposable cameras. Tanner’s personal favorite? The Flarp. “It’s like putty, but you can put your fingers in it and it makes a fart sound,” he says. “And I think that’s hilarious.”

Each bag costs about $65 for Tanner to fill, and items are purchased with donations made to Tanner’s Totes.

Spreading Smiles: A Family Affair

These days, Tanner isn’t the only Smith involved with Tanner’s Totes.

“Tanner is our PR person, and [Tanner’s father] Craig is behind the scenes,” says Kathy Smith, Tanner’s mother. “And I am the shopper.”

Tanner’s great-uncle, Rick, owns a screen-printing shop — so he’s in charge of making the tote bags. And that leaves the stuffing: Kathy assembles teams of volunteers to come over and fill the bags to the brim with markers, trading cards, and — of course — Flarps.

“These teams volunteer their time to come help us and fill the totes, and then we ship them from here at our home,” says Kathy.

How Tanner’s Totes Help Sick Kids

“Some of the reactions through e-mails and hand-written letters are absolutely overwhelming and encouraging,” says Craig Smith. “We like to hear from the patients because we like to know that we're making a difference.”

Tanner remembers the first patient he ever heard from — a girl named Tabitha, who was given a Tanner’s Tote while staying in the hospital. A couple months after he received Tabitha’s thank-you note, Tanner was delivering totes to her hospital, and the two were able to meet face to face. “I was able to go up and meet her, and talk to her about what she was going through and what she liked about the totes,” he says. “It was the first time that I personally got to see exactly what I was doing and how it was working. It came full circle.”

But these totes may do more than just brighten a young patient’s day: Research tends to show that a positive attitude helps a patient’s overall outlook — and that emotional health is an extremely important factor in one’s physical health.

“A child that’s feeling good has a better chance to benefit from all the resources we have for them,” says Maurice Sholas, MD, a pediatric psychiatrist at Scottish Rite Hospital.

And Dr. Sholas sees firsthand how Tanner is making a big difference in these kids’ emotional health. “It starts with a smile today, which could lead to a laugh tomorrow, which could lead to the whole world changing in a new and positive way in the future,” he says. “The smallest things lead to the biggest successes. And I think Tanner’s Totes is really important in that process.”

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