Mindy Atwood understands the all-consuming fear and concern when a child is sick.
Her son Jason had been ill for about a year, but doctors couldn’t pinpoint a diagnosis. One day, she noticed the 3-year-old wasn’t walking properly. She lifted his shirt up and saw he was bleeding from his right side. He was eventually diagnosed with a Wilms tumor, a childhood kidney cancer.
That was in 1983. Almost a decade later, when her youngest son Michael was 9 years old, he was diagnosed with a heart murmur and had to have open-heart surgery.
Her sons eventually recovered and Atwood, 61, turned her attention to helping others in her situation. The Hilliard woman started by raising money through candy sales to help families with basic needs. Then in 1999, Atwood founded Patches of Light, a nonprofit that assists with emergency expenses for families with ill children and provides gift bags to cheer them up. “We wanted to be right in there, putting 100 percent to the families,” she said.
Now, Patches of Light receives five to 10 applications a week from families who are looking for assistance. Atwood visits Nationwide Children’s Hospital two to three times a week to hand out a variety of gift bags and to offer help.
The assistance includes programs such as fishing trips to let families go outdoors with their kids and HUG bags filled with goodies such as blankets, superhero capes and gas station gift cards. “Our whole goal is to work with families that don’t have help,” Atwood said.
Atwood’s 62-year-old husband, Rod, said seeing his wife help families for the last 20 years is inspiring to him, especially since she deals with severe arthritis.
“Instead of complaining and not doing anything and just laying there in bed like some people will do, she gets up and just fights everyday,” he said. “She fights for the children, she fights for the families, she fights for trying to get money to come in ... she does everything.”
Rod Atwood said that since Patches of Light started, he’s seen a change in his wife.
“I have seen her mature a lot from the emotional aspect of it, to more of a business aspect of it to fulfill the needs of her organization,” he said. “As you get older, you get wiser, you open up to new ideas. She’s been more creative.”
One child sticks in Atwood’s mind as she continues her mission. Sam Williams, now 14, was born with gastroschisis—a defect of the abdominal wall where a child is born with their intestines on the outside—and had to undergo liver, small bowel and pancreas transplants due to complications that it caused. He also just found out that he has thyroid cancer. Still, Sam is almost always smiling.
“I’ve only seen this child not smile once, and that was when he was school-clothes shopping,” she said. Sam’s mother sent Atwood a photo of the boy frowning during the shopping trip.
Sam’s mother, Mallory Williams, 34, said she met Atwood when Patches of Light sponsored a fundraiser for Sam. Since then, Atwood provides constant support for the Williams family.
“I don’t think we’d be where we are right now without their help financially, and then also just her emotional support to my family and, I know, to Sam,” Williams said.
Seeing kids that are going through painful illnesses and treatments and still smile—like Sam—is one of the biggest reasons Atwood said she will keep helping them and their families as long as possible.
But what also drives her is knowing that while she sees some families getting support from their own circles, there are families who can’t even afford food or shelter.
“I have to fight for these families, because the other families have people who fight,” she said. “That’s what keeps me going too, is that fight to make sure that all the families are taken care of, all of the families know they’re loved and there’s somebody there for them.”