Ellie’s Elves poised to help families in crisis
Joni Kanazawa never forgot her grandmother’s favorite saying, “I shall pass this way but once. Any good that I can do or any kindess I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
Years later, in 2013, the Fredericksburg resident founded Ellie’s Elves, a nonprofit that supports families facing an unexpected crisis, such as a cancer diagnosis or a house fire.
Kanazawa hopes Ellie’s Elves can “be the light” for those who find themselves in a dark place.
The charity, inspired by a 2-year-old named Ellie who battled a rare brain cancer, calls its team of volunteers “elves”. Those elves – hundreds of them – spring to action when needed, assisting families in Stafford, Fredericksburg and elsewhere in the region.
This holiday season, Ellie’s Elves is working with local social workers and the school system to help with Christmas, including gathering presents for families experiencing a recent crisis.
Many of the elves are local, but the group has others spread across the United States, and even a few as far away as Japan and New Zealand, Kanzawa said.
Some volunteer weekly, others seasonally and some when they can. They keep in close contact through social media, gathering clothing, food or other helpful items families may need.
Sometimes, the best thing they can offer is encouragement.
Although many government and private organizations help low-income families, Ellie’s Elves wants to help those who may not qualify for assistance elsewhere.
“We strive to help families who may typically fly below the radar and often wouldn’t ask for outside help,” Kanazawa said. “They are often caught off-guard with their situation and are referred to our organization through their friends or family.”
Ellie’s Elves gets lots of requests for help with clothing and housewares, she said.
Little things donated may seem insignificant but can be of huge comfort to a family in a crisis, according to Kanazawa, who knows all too well.
She is a breast cancer survivor who just celebrated 10 years being cancer-free. When diagnosed, Kanazawa had just moved from Atlanta to Fredericksburg for her husband’s job.
“Although I volunteered in Atlanta with cancer awareness organizations and did advocacy work prior to being diagnozed, I truly didn’t understand the meaning of “crisis” until our family was facing our own,” she said. “As they say, ‘You don’t get it until you get it.'”
One day, Kanazawa found a lump in her breast during a self-exam in the shower. She was 34 years old.
“We soon found ourselves in a new location with his new job, a child about to start kindergarten, no family in the state and this terrifying medical crisis,” Kanazawa said. “When your whole world is shaken by an unforseen crisis, you learn a lot about yourself, your support system and how to ask for help when asking for help isn’t typically in your wheelhouse.”
People rallied around her to help, including her daughter’s Grafton Village Elementary School teacher, Tina Renninger, and Renninger’s daughter, Carly Blaine. They made hats for Kanazawa to wear as she went through cancer treatements and Georgia Bulldog dresses for her daughter to remind her of home.
The acts of kindness didn’t go unnoticied. And not long after, the very people who had been helping her experienced their own trauma.
Carly and her husband, Richard, of Oragne, discovered that their 2-year-old, Ellie, was suffering from pineoblastoma, an aggressive cancer affecting the brain.
“We knew that we had been called to support their sweet family like they helped support ours,” Kanazawa said. She and others rallied to help with meals, Christmas presents and more.
Thinking back, Kanazawa feels she was meant to be in Fredericksburg for a higher purpose.
Ellie died three days before Chrismtas 2013, just shy of her third birthday.
But she truly inspired Kanazawa, who thought, “It doesn’t have to stop here.” And it didn’t.
Ellie’s Elves continued and to this day, upholds Ellie Blaine’s legacy.
The Nonprofit created the Mary Washington Hospital Foundation’s Pediatric Oncology Fund in memory of Ellie. It offers resources for pediatric cancer families through events and fundraisers.
Donation closets at Mary Washington Healthcare in Fredericksburg and the Mary Washington Hopsital Regional Cancer Center are stocked with clothing, shoes, home goods, toiletries and more. Ellie’s Toy Closet, a similar setup, holds toys, electronics and books for pediatric patients.
Kanazawa, whose perspective on life is forever changed, still works tirelessly, believing kindness is vital. Her hope is that people will recognize the ripple effect kindness has, no matter how big or small the gesture.
After all, “If you can’t find the light in the darkness,” the group stresses, “BE the light.”
How to help
Ellie’s Elves regularly needs new socks, underwear, sport bras, t-shirts, toiletries, pajamas and hoodies in all sizes, plus new craft and STEM kits, educational games and books for all ages. The group also collects gift cards for grocery and clothing stores, gas stations, restaurants and coffee shops that are given to families facing hardships.
Ellie’s Elves partners with Hollywood Church of the Brethren’s food pantry, at 225 Ferry Road in Fredericksburg. Families in need can stop by there on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to noon and fill out a wish list for clothing and other necessities.
Tracy Bell is a freelancer living in Stafford County.