Katelyn Ashton, development coordinator for the Children's Hospital Central California Foundation, stood before a group of nearly 30 people next to the “Champions for Children’s” donor wall just inside the Hospital’s main entrance. “This is you, right here,” she said, pointing to a name on the display. Several men and women stepped closer to see. Under the column heading “Champions $250,000 – $499,999” they found what they were looking for: Happy Hearts – The Nugent Family.
“As of this fall you will be moving over here,” said Ashton, pointing to a much shorter list. “You are one of the elite few.” She spoke with obvious gratitude for the handful of generous donors who have contributed between $500,000 and $999,999 to the Hospital. “And this isn’t the only place you’ll find your name,” she said. “Are you ready? Follow me.” So began a touching – and sometimes tearful – guided tour of Paramount Farms Plaza, the newly expanded area of the Hospital that had not yet opened to the public. For Skip Nugent, the trip would include a wonderful surprise.
“This donor wall will change twice a year as people continue to give,” said Ashton, ushering Nugent, members of his family, managers and employees of his Best Buy Markets, and other dedicated Happy Hearts volunteers toward their destination. “But the donor wall in Paramount Farms Plaza will remain the same throughout history. It acknowledges the people who played a part in making it happen. And that includes you.”
Happy Hearts and the Nugent family direct all their gifts to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) at Children's Hospital Central California. Paramount Farms Plaza features an extension of the Hospital’s PICU, an essential addition of eight beds for the most critically ill and injured kids in the Hospital. The new extension will open in 2012 after temporarily housing post-op day surgery, which is currently under renovation. The Hospital’s $66 million expansion also includes new surgical suites, increased medical imaging, and an expanded emergency department.
“Part of why I wanted to give back to this Hospital is because of how great the people are,” said Nugent. Like so many parents, Nugent became acquainted with our staff under extremely difficult circumstances. His daughter was involved in a car accident late in the afternoon on Oct. 7, 2002 while making deliveries for her employer in Visalia.
Suffering severe head trauma and other critical injuries, Heather was taken to Kaweah Delta Medical Center in Visalia where she was stabilized before being transported to Children’s Hospital Central California for a higher level of care.
“That night the whole waiting room (at Children’s) was filled with people – all there for Heather,” said Nugent. He vividly remembers the kindness and compassion the doctors and nurses extended to them all as they waited for news about his daughter.
An energetic teenager, Heather was enrolled in her first semester at College of the Sequoias and had many friends. While a high school senior, she was awarded the most valuable player award for both soccer and track. Heather was days from her 18th birthday when she succumbed to her injuries and died on Oct. 8.
“The exceptional care Children’s gave us is the reason I wanted to give back,” said Heather’s dad. “The nurses could see the emotion from all of those kids, and they teared up, too. They let her friends go in two-by-two to say goodbye.”
A few months after Heather’s death, Nugent awoke in the middle of the night with a vivid picture in his mind of Happy Hearts. He envisioned a fundraising phenomenon that would involve sales of heart-shaped icons at his markets in Hanford, Lemoore and Visalia. He saw himself seated at his desk on the street corners at each market raising money from passersby. He knew he would stay at that desk until he raised $10,000, and he knew all the money would be given to Children’s PICU. Nugent’s dream revealed the idea of holding an annual Happy Hearts Day, and just six months after his daughter passed away, he held the first annual celebration.
When asked where the name “Happy Hearts” came from, Nugent didn’t hesitate to answer. “We were organ donors, and Heather’s heart was the first one we gave.”
As the tour group entered through the Hospital’s new ambulance bay, Ashton said, “Let’s go in the same way a child would go if they were admitted to the new PICU you helped make possible.” She swiped her badge and the doors swung open. “You are literally saving lives.”
The Nugent family knows that Heather has already saved many lives. “She saved five lives by giving her organs to people who needed them,” Nugent later said.
The Happy Hearts volunteers rode the elevator to the second floor unaware of what they were about to see. Just outside the entrance to the new PICU waiting room hangs a star with this inscription:
This Room Made Possible by
The Skip Nugent Family
In Loving Memory of Heather Nugent
“About a month ago I learned of the plans for the tour and luncheon,” said Heather’s dad. “But today was a surprise. It never occurred to me that they would name the waiting room for her.”
After posing for a few photographs with the star, a few of them wandered into the waiting room.
“How did they know?” asked an astonished family member. “Look in the room.”
The walls displayed brightly colored pictures taken in the San Joaquin Valley. One featured an avocado crate, another a field of grain. There was a bushel of bell peppers, and rows of green vegetable crops.
“It’s all produce,” she said. “It’s our life. I don’t know who knew to do that.”
Nugent’s grandfather was a grower. He and his father began their careers in produce before Best Buy Markets came along. The moment could not have been more tender as the Nugent family quietly took in the artwork hanging on the walls inside the PICU waiting room.
“It’s a miracle,” a family member said. “God’s miracle.”
Nugent nodded. “And Heather’s.”
In the nine years since the first annual Happy Hearts Day, Nugent’s fundraiser has grown beyond his sleep-impeding dream. Every year during the month of April, the walls in all three of Nugent’s Best Buy Markets fill with Happy Hearts icons sold for $1 a piece. In addition, each market holds an event every weekend in April. From parking lot car washes and carnivals to tri-tip dinner sales and silent auction baskets, volunteers rally their communities to support the Hospital. There’s also a “Ride for Happy Hearts” Harley Poker Run, a Happy Hearts golf tournament, and a bowling tournament.
After lingering in the waiting room, the tour group made its way into the PICU, where Dana Srikanth, registered nurse and PICU supervisor at Children’s, stood by to tell them about the new facility.
“I have worked throughout the US, and I’ve never served in a place like this,” she said. “It’s our people.” Nugent would agree. “I think one of the amazing things about our staff is that they work with a wide range of ages and with diagnoses of all kinds,” said Srikanth. “We received patient transfers from 56 different facilities last year.” Nugent knew of their transfer agreements with hospitals like Kaweah Delta Medical Center, and through his work with Happy Hearts he has learned of more.
“This year a 12-year-old kid came up to me when I was at my desk on the corner,” said Nugent. “He came with his dad and showed me his scar. It ran from his navel to his throat. He told me that he was transported to Children’s when he was only 4 hours old and that they saved his life.”
Nugent looks forward to setting up his desk at 8 a.m. with his loud speaker and volunteers dressed in heart-shaped sandwich boards. “Happy Hearts is not about me,” said Nugent. “It’s bigger than me. Each year people share their stories with me. That’s the best part about doing this. When I’m sitting out there, I provide an outlet for them to come and share their stories about Children’s Hospital. It’s very emotional.”
Every year since the first annual Happy Hearts Day, Nugent has reached his $10,000 goal before 5 p.m. He recalls his shortest day ever was in front of his Hanford Best Buy Market one year. “I was done by 1:30,” he said.
As of May 2011, all the fundraising events over the years have totaled $576,820. “I love what we’ve done,” said Nugent. “It all comes from the heart.”
Happy Hearts giving over the years:
- 2003: $23,150
- 2004: $37,440
- 2005: $33,640
- 2006: $56,340
- 2007: $67,315
- 2008: $91,140
- 2009: $90,360
- 2010: $104,540
- 2011: $72,895 (and counting)
Glancing back and gazing forward, Nugent maintains his focus on helping Valley children who need pediatric intensive care. His painful experience in 2002 inspires him to give back to Children's Hospital Central California. Thanks to his dedication, Happy Hearts makes a positive difference today and will keep on benefiting families like his well into the future. “We couldn’t quit this if we wanted to,” said Nugent. “My dream is to make Happy Hearts a household name.”
With the “Happy Hearts” name appearing on the “Champions for Children’s” donor wall in the Hospital’s main entrance, the Paramount Farms Plaza donor wall in the new wing, and the star just outside the new PICU waiting room, Nugent’s dream will come true. Children's Hospital Central California sincerely thanks the Nugent Family for the philanthropic work of Happy Hearts. Due to the generosity of supporters like him, Paramount Farms Plaza opened for its first patient on May 31.