Young transplant patient Case checks out some Xbox games. Courtesy Virginia Montanez.

The little hospital patient named Case, not quite 2, wasn’t interested. Not in the Xbox being installed in his room and certainly not in having his picture taken. “And who can blame him?” asks Virginia Montanez. “He’s in the transplant unit, after all.”

Montanez was visiting the toddler at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh as part of the Make Room for Kids (MR4K) initiative, which installs gaming equipment and other technology to help entertain in-patient children.

Determined to help Case, and realizing he was  younger than the average gamer, Montanez remembered the stash of DVDs they had brought and what her two kids liked at his age. She got the DVDs and returned only to see Case light up at the sight of them. “He grabbed every game from my hands and started squealing at each one.” 

Paw Patrol, for one, was a hit. He exploded with joy, she says. “Nancy Angus (executive director of the Mario Lemieux Foundation) ran to grab the DVD and when she returned to hand it to him, he had the hugest smile on his face.”

Make Room for Kids operates under the Austin’s Playroom Project at the Mario Lemieux Foundation (MLF) and Montanez has just launched its seventh annual fundraising drive on her blog That’s Church, which is where the project started

In the first six years, MR4K raised over $125,000 to install 200 Xboxes and other entertainment technology in Children’s Hospital, the pediatric unit at Allegheny General Hospital, the Children’s Home of Pittsburgh, and the Lemieux Family Center.

“That’s a lot of rooms, a lot of beds, a lot of smiles on sick kids’ faces,” as Montanez writes in her blog.

The children are in a variety of hospital units, including oncology, adolescent medicine, cardiac ICU, and infusion/transfusion and more. These children are in pain, and/or bored, and sometimes quite sad. The entertainment and distraction provided by video gaming systems, televisions and tablets can make their situation more bearable.

On April 21st, Make Room for Kids will be outfitting the gastroenterology unit at Children’s Hospital which serves children with Crohn’s, colitis, and cystic fibrosis, as well as transplant patients. They will also be updating technology already installed in previous years and Genre’s Kids with Cancer Fund will pay the cost of updates to tech in Children’s oncology unit.

Montanez points to Genre Baker as an inspiration for the MR4K concept. Diagnosed with leukemia in 2009 at age 8, gaming helped Genre and his friends get through cancer treatment. Now in remission, Genre is active in the organization that bears his name; its mission is to help families living with childhood cancer.

In years past, Montanez has asked her blog readers to help raise $10,000 for the Xboxes and games. “But this year, I only need to raise $5,200 thanks to the generosity of the Holiday Park Volunteer Fire Dept. which donated their bingo proceeds to the project, and donations from Burgatory and ScareHouse for their annual ScareHouse Shake,” Montanez says.

Make Room for Kids began in September, 2009. Montanez, one of the most popular bloggers in Pittsburgh, known for her scathing wit and love of all things yinzer, urged her loyal readers to vote in a nationwide Children’s Miracle Network campaign to win a children’s hospital game room upgrade from Microsoft. She vowed at the time that if the voting didn’t go Pittsburgh’s way (which it didn’t, thanks to a voting site crash) that she would take on the challenge herself, with the help of her readers.

That first campaign was a huge success, partly due to one loyal Montanez fan who recruited her husband for help. That happened to be Luke Sossi, enterprise partner sales director at Microsoft’s Pittsburgh office. Sossi and the approximately 30 other local Microsoft employees have taken MR4K to heart, raising money as part of their annual Giving Campaign (which Microsoft matches dollar-for-dollar) and installing and maintaining the devices.

Nancy Angus, Genre Baker, Luke Sossi and Virginia Montanez. Courtesy Montanez.

“For about four months of the year, my basement ends up being a staging area as we purchase the Xbox units and tablets and begin to configure them,” Sossi says. “In April, the Microsoft team, along with MLF and Ginny, visit the location and install the units.”

Many people contribute to the success of MR4K, but all agree that Ginny Montanez is its heart, soul and driving force. “The generosity from Ginny Montanez is immeasurable,” Angus says. “Ginny’s commitment to MR4K is as strong as it was six-plus years ago when we were developing the idea. On install day, you can see her care and concern for these kids as they are getting new Xboxes installed. It’s remarkable how she and Luke have touched the lives of so many kids and families through MR4K.”

Sossi says he’s grateful for the opportunity to be involved in Make Room for Kids. “Each time I leave Children’s Hospital I need a couple of minutes in my car to compose myself since it is such an emotional experience,” Sossi says. “It’s the look of the child’s face when we install the Xbox. It’s the parents saying ‘thank you for the Xbox since it allows my other kids to play with my son while he is cooped up in the hospital.’  It’s the nurse thanking us for aiding the epilepsy diagnosis process so the patients can play a Kinect game versus riding a stationary bike.”

Thinking back to the “Paw Patrol” moment, Montanez reflects on the generosity of those who are involved in MR4K, from her readers to the staff at the Mario Lemieux Foundation and CHP, to the Microsoft employees who make the technological magic happen. “Moments like that, where the kids just forget about the hospital and the doctors and the machines, make it all worth it. Just a smile in a room in the transplant unit,” she says.

Donate to Make Room for Kids fundraising drive and read the latest post about the project on That’s Church. All funds are sent via PayPal directly to the Mario Lemieux Foundation. As with each previous year, once the fundraising goal is reached, Montanez will post a wish list on Amazon of all the games and movies the kids in previous years’ install units have requested.

Jonathan Wander

'Burgh-loving Jonathan Wander (Twitter: @jmwander) has written for various publications including Men’s Health, and has gratefully guest-posted on amazing sites like That’s Church.