Criminal Justice student's nonprofit Initiative: Lights For Kids

A childhood experience lights up the eyes of children today

This year, as the holiday season approaches, University of Cincinnati (UC) student Olivia Messina sits on the phone with children’s hospitals across the country—figuring out shipping routes and donation schedules. Soon, she’ll be standing over seemingly endless boxes of string lights and toys. In the same room will be her mom, placing manufacturing orders for battery-powered lights and sorting through financial donations. Eventually, these lights and toys will find themselves strung along the hospital rooms of children across the world, illuminating their rooms with the cheer of the holiday season. 

Messina’s day-to-day life might look similar to that of many college students—working hard in her sophomore year of Criminal Justice classes, staying up late to participate in multiple student organizations, and fighting the inevitable midterm exams. However, her efforts only begin there. 

Messina is also the founder of Lights For Kids, a nonprofit organization that supplies hospitalized children across the United States with string lights and toys for their hospital rooms. Since 2017, Lights For Kids has donated to 34 different children’s hospitals in 25 U.S. states. 

The Lights For Kids team consists of two people: Olivia, who handles the general operations, shipping, and public outreach, and her mother Jodi, who handles donations, battery and light purchases, and assists with any work that Olivia can’t do while at UC. 

Lights For Kids is approaching its sixth year of operations, a long time away from its creation in 2017—which all stemmed from a life-changing moment for Messina.  

Messina's time in a Children's Hospital

Messina in a hospital room.

Olivia Messina made her hospital room more cozy by adding lights. Photo/provided.

Back in 2016, while in 8th grade, Messina was hospitalized for External Tibial Torsion—a developmental condition that locked her knees and severely impacted her ability to walk. The condition forced her to undergo intense surgery, which resulted in a strenuous recovery process. That year, Messina spent a portion of the holiday season in a hospital room at University Hospitals' Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital.

While Messina was recovering, she decided to make her hospital room feel more like her room at home—decorating the walls with colorful string lights. The lights brought a familiar and comforting feeling to her hospital room, which previously seemed to be missing the joyful aura of the holiday season. After putting up the lights, however, they brought more benefits than just lifting morale in the room. The lights provided a soft and colorful hue and were able to stay on at night while Messina was sleeping, which made it possible for the nurses to do late-night check-ups without turning on the bright fluorescents.

After four days at the hospital, Messina was medically cleared and discharged. Upon leaving, she wondered what to do with the string lights that had brought so much comfort to her time at the hospital. 

Messina would soon come to learn of a young boy across the hallway who was bound to spend the remainder of the holiday season in the Children’s Hospital—a feeling she knew all too well. As she was packing up her belongings, Messina decided to leave her string lights with the boy across the hall—a small favor for someone she knew needed a little bit of extra kindness. 

I gave the lights to him with a little card and his face just lit up [with joy]. It made him so happy.

Olivia Messina

This simple act of shining a glimmer of light into someone else’s life would eventually become her passion for years to come, but Messina didn’t know it yet. 

How Lights For Kids was founded

She wouldn’t come to realize the potential of donating lights until a couple of months after her discharge from the hospital while daydreaming in a high school class—thinking back to the boy across the hall and his reaction to receiving a set of lights for his hospital room. Messina expressed the idea to her classmate, passing notes back and forth in the middle of class, eventually realizing the impact she could make by donating lights on a larger scale. 

After that, Messina hit the ground running—coordinating a donation drive at her high school, which resulted in Messina personally delivering 213 sets of lights to University Hospitals' Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital.

Donation drop-off at  a Children's Hospital.

Olivia Messina, her family, and two of her friends helping her do a donation drop-off at University Hospitals' Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital. Photo/provided.

Fast forward to now, during 2022’s holiday season, Lights for Kids is on pace to donate nearly 1,000 sets of lights and 500 toys for the year, a groundbreaking sum for the nonprofit.  Since Lights for Kids was created, Messina has been collaborating with businesses, mainly in her hometown of Cleveland, to host donation drives where people either drop off their old sets of lights or give financial contributions. As a result, Lights For Kids has been able to make connections and expand its brand— effectively making it easier for hospitalized children across the country to feel the warmth of the holiday season with their own set of lights. 

Being the founder of Lights For Kids, Messina is responsible for supplying and transporting the lights and toys. She is frequently in contact with child life specialists from multiple hospitals, who oversee easing the emotional burden of hospitalized children. While working together, both Messina and the child life specialists can find ways to create the most comfortable environment possible inside the hospital rooms. 

Hospitalizations are a lot more mentally and emotionally taxing on children than a lot of people realize, especially when their parents can’t be there all of the time.

Olivia Messina

The logistics of the nonprofit's operations

Although Messina can’t personally give the lights to each child due to safety and time constraints, she has gone to immense lengths to facilitate shipments across the country— making sure all the donations get to their destinations by coordinating with hospital staff and tracking each shipment. Many orders of lights are transported by shipping companies, which can get expensive, according to Messina. The Lights For Kids team also must work around the safety requirements of each hospital—many of which prohibit the use of plug-in lights. As a result, part of their received financial donations go toward purchasing battery-powered lights in bulk, which pose significantly less of a safety risk than plug-ins.  

These obstacles, of course, draw on one of Lights For Kids’ biggest current limitations: funding. However, Messina is planning to expand the nonprofit’s funds through efforts on UC’s campus. With the resources of a large metropolitan area at UC, Messina is currently hoping to host a donation drive for students to drop off their spare lights and toys—in addition to giving financial contributions. Spreading awareness is also a significant proponent of Messina’s hopes for the future of Lights For Kids, a nonprofit that many people don’t yet know about. 

"I want to keep this going for as long as possible to help as many kids as possible,” Messina said. "My current goal is to have 1,000 lights donated per year. I’m currently in 25 states and I’d like to see that number increase by at least 10 in the next couple years while maintaining steady donations.”

The future of Lights For Kids

Messina packaging lights.

Olivia Messina packaging a shipment of lights during the holiday season. Photo/provided.

With Lights For Kids on an upward trajectory, Messina keeps the initiative’s original purpose in mind: providing any possible source of happiness into the lives of children—many of whom have seemingly had their world turned upside down by their hospitalization. 

“[No one] knows what the future holds, no matter how small a hospitalization is,” Messina said. “The future’s not set in stone. Because of that, the work we do is very in-the-moment and we’re making sure that a child’s emotional needs are met, even if it’s just a little bit.”

To learn more about Lights For Kids, visit their website. Lights For Kids is currently accepting light and toy donations and financial contributions via Venmo and PayPal. 

Featured photo at top provided by Messina.

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