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Terminally ill brother motivates sister to form nonprofit

Twelve years ago, Addison Kleinhans was battling for his life against Leukemia. At the same time, his sister battled for attention against a situation she couldn’t understand. From her experience, she created a nonprofit which ensures other kids don’t feel left out.
MadeleneKleinhans
Madelene Kleinhans founded Heartfelt Hugs to offer a bright spot for siblings of terminally-ill children.

Twelve years ago, Addison Kleinhans was battling for his life against Leukemia. At the same time, his sister battled for attention against a situation she couldn’t understand. From her experience, she created a nonprofit which ensures other kids don’t feel left out.

“If there's something that is making your life harder … the only thing that you can do is try to change it,” Madelene Kleinhans said.

Madelene Kleinhans was alarmed by her brother’s lack of interest in typical activities.

“I didn't understand how sick he was,” she said. “He didn't want to collect Easter eggs and actually asked me to collect them for him … He didn't want to ride his bike or anything. Now we know that's because his liver was shutting down.”

During the initial treatment phase Madelene Kleinhans lived with family friends while her mother, Sarah Clarke Kleinhans spent extensive time by her son’s bedside.

“When my brother got diagnosed I didn't see him for at least a month,” she said.

For the next several years Madelene Kleinhans accompanied her mother and brother for recurring care at Children’s Hospital.

By age 12 her frustration mounted after feeling slighted while watching her brother garner more attention at every turn due to his life-threatening condition.

“My brother was always going to the hospital and I was so bored,” she recalled. “I was acting out and my parents didn't know what to do with me.”

After attending a support group for the siblings of critically ill kids, Madelene Kleinhans realized other peers were experiencing the same sentiments of being seemingly forgotten while their parents focused elsewhere. 

“That was an eye opener, because that's when I really got to talk to other kids,” she said. 

The feeling of being left out hit a peak one day when Madelene Kleinhans was at Children’s Hospital.

“There was this toy chest that my brother got to pick something out of every time he went to an appointment,” she said. 

After being denied a request to pick out a toy for herself, Madelene Kleinhans got frustrated and eventually decided to start her own outreach effort for peers in similar straits. “It all boils down to me just being a little spoiled brat, but something good actually came out of it,” she said.

Redirecting her energy in a positive manner, Madelene Kleinhans pitched her mom on providing a toy chest just for siblings of kids in treatment at the hospital.

“I don't think she really realized that it was gonna become a plan right then and there,” she said.

In short order, Madelene Kleinhans was amazed after discussing the concept with a total stranger who quickly wrote a $100 donation check.

“It just took one kind person,” she said.

After using the funding to purchase an array of low-cost toys, Madelene Kleinhans began handing out items while attending events with her brother.

“He was the boy of the year for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and was doing a lot of awareness events,” she said.

Before long Madelene Kleinhans located several organizations, including Boulder-based nonprofit There With Care, Children’s Hospital Colorado and Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children, which all agreed to help promote Heartfelt Hugs.

In short order hatched a plan to hold recurring events for kids with critically ill siblings. In 2014, she established the nonprofit Heartfelt Hugs to provide celebratory events for children with critically ill siblings.

The initial foray was held at the Rock Creek Farm Pumpkin Patch on S. 112th Street in Broomfield, but drew only scant attendance of three kids, Madelene Kleinhans said .

Recognizing the need to network, Madelene Kleinhans enlisted support from partnering organizations.

“There were little Heartfelt Hugs fliers all over Children's Hospital,” she recalled.  

By the following year the Pumpkin Patch event drew well over 100 families.

“It has taken off just because there isn't anything where it's just like an escape for the kids,” she said.

Since that point Heartfelt Hugs has sponsored get togethers every other month, with revolving activities such as ice skating and pizza parties.

The ongoing outreach efforts have garnered multiple honors for Madelene Kleinhans, including the Heart of Broomfield Award and the President's Volunteer Service Award, both in 2015.

In terms of motivation to continue operating Heartfelt Hugs, Madelene Kleinhans said it boils down to identifying a worthwhile cause.   

“You have to find a purpose or something that gives you meaning,” she noted. “People sit back and think that things just happen but there's people out there making those things happen … You can't just complain about it, you have to take initiative.”