When friends Maryam Quraishi and Eman Umer were volunteering at a local hospital about three years ago, the coronavirus was forcing strict limitations on the number of visitors and volunteers who could be with patients.

Maryam Quraishi and Eman Umer, seniors at Irvine’s Northwood High, founded Crafting Smiles during the pandemic and have grown it into a nonprofit with volunteers across the country. (Courtesy of Maryam Quraishi)

Then freshmen at Northwood High School in Irvine, Quraishi and Umer were especially struck by the lack of engagement for pediatric patients, who, in some cases, were in isolation and couldn’t leave their rooms.

Or, in some cases, volunteers were too busy with other duties and not able to spend adequate time with the young patients, Umer said.

“I kind of noticed that there were these patients who were looking forward to playing with volunteers and volunteers weren’t able to make it,” she recalled. “So, I kind of started wondering how Miriam and I could work together to kind of fill this gap.”

The friends did fill the gap, and then some.

Umer and Quraishi, who are now Northwood seniors, started a nonprofit, “Crafting Smiles,” with the mission of “bringing joy and connection to hospitalized children.”

Through Zoom, their volunteers host workshops for the children to help them “pursue their passions,” whether it is painting, pottery, origami or one of many other activities.

Crafting Smiles’ curriculum also offers digital art, music and storytime sessions.

Children are provided with Amazon Fire tablets to connect to Zoom for the sessions, along with the materials needed to create their chosen craft.

“We provide the hospitals with all the necessary materials to do the workshop so that the patients can fully pursue something beyond what they are provided with at the hospital,” Quraishi said.

All supplies are safe for children as young as 3 years old and the sessions last about 30 minutes.

When permitted, the hospitalized children can meet with volunteer instructors in person.

Fountain Valley Regional Hospital was the first to take advantage of the services offered by Crafting Smiles.

Adrienne Feilden, pediatric nurse and child life specialist at the hospital, said Crafting Smiles has been transformational, particularly with pediatric patients in isolation rooms.

“We are able to offer the visits to children and teens who are on isolation status and not able to leave their hospital rooms,” Feilden said. “Our weekly visits with Crafting Smiles offers important diversion and expression through fun activities.  The tablet becomes a way for such patients to receive an interactive volunteer visit.”

And once Fountain Valley Regional started offering Crafting Smiles, it got a lot easier to make inroads with other medical facilities, Umer said.

Umer and Quraishi have organized a team of publicists and built a large social media presence to spread word about their nonprofit.

They are now connected with hospitals and volunteers around the United States and even internationally. To date, Crafting Smiles has a pool of more than 230 volunteers with chapters in New York, Texas and Illinois.

The nonprofit has connected with more than 650 patients and paired patients with volunteers in multiple hospitals.

“I am extremely impressed at how Eman and Maryam created their nonprofit organization on their own at such a young age,” Feilden said.  “They demonstrate wonderful professionalism in organizing the visits, engaging with the patients, and maintaining their volunteers involved within the program.”

Quraishi and Umer are in the process of applying to college and plan to continue running Crafting Smiles, they said.

In fact, they feel university life will offer even better opportunities to draw volunteers and expand the nonprofit even more.

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Feilden has no doubt.

“I know the sky is the limit for these two,” she said, “and their team in making a difference in the world.”

For more information on Crafting Smiles, including details on how to volunteer, visit craftingsmiles.org.