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“We heard her laugh for the first time.” Why the Kimmel Family Gives Back

Maggie smiling, flowers bloom behind her

Jen and Nick Kimmel’s Riley story began when they were expecting their daughter, Maggie, and learned she may have a life-threatening complication. Under the compassionate care of many specialists at Riley Children’s Health, Maggie has grown from a struggling infant to a spunky little girl.

As principal of South Central Elementary, Nick now leads his school community in giving back to the hospital that saved his daughter’s life. During the 2022-2023 school year, South Central students raised more than $15,000 through the Kids Caring & Sharing™ program. Though the school has fewer than 500 students, they doubled their fundraising total from the previous year.

South Central Elementary Students
South Central Elementary Students

Jen and Nick share more about what motivates them as a Riley Grateful Family.

What first brought you to Riley Children’s Health, and what has been your journey since then?

A routine 20 week anatomy scan revealed a significant defect, initially thought to be potentially life-threatening to our daughter, Maggie. Our doctor thought there could be brain matter on the outside of her skull and referred us to Riley Neurosurgery. Maggie was incredibly lucky to only have fluid on the outside, and everything else intact on the inside. She required a shunt placed at birth for hydrocephalus and surgical removal of the fluid filled growth on her head.

At Maggie's one month checkup, her doctor found a heart murmur and referred us back to Riley for a cardiology appointment. We saw Dr. Ebenroth, who discovered two holes in her heart. After a few months of monitoring, he recommended surgery. Dr. Ebenroth is someone that Maggie still sees regularly, and she once told him that she loves him.

Dr. Turrentine performed open heart surgery. She was absolutely in the best hands, and as promised, she has the most beautiful invisible scars from her open heart surgery.

While Maggie’s cerebellum is underdeveloped and she will always have a shunt, she is an active and highly intelligent child. She still sees many Riley doctors regularly for checkups. It truly is nice to see the faces of those who saved your child’s life.

When you think about what Riley means to you, are there particular moments that stand out?

Jen: When Maggie needed open heart surgery, it rocked our whole world. This was by far the hardest moment in our lives – handing over our 5 month old for surgery. But when I handed her over and tearfully explained that she would calm down if you patted her lower back, the nurse took her from me and lovingly patted her lower back.

A few days after Maggie’s open heart surgery, while recovering in the hospital, we heard her laugh for the first time. I cannot even describe to you what it feels like to have your child healthy and happy after many months of watching her fight for life.

Why is it important to your family to give back to Riley?

Riley saved Maggie’s life four times: at birth, her open heart surgery, and two shunt revisions. She has learned to read, write, multiply, and divide. She has danced in recitals, learned to play the guitar, become an amazing little swimmer, and she is completely full of life and spunk. If you’ve met her, you’ve fallen in love with her. We are forever grateful to every member of the amazing team at Riley, from the front desk receptionist to the doctors, and those that support them.

What led to South Central Elementary’s fundraising success? What motivated your school community to give back to Riley so generously?

Nick: A few factors leading to South Central Elementary's fundraising success were strong community support, social media promotion, and rewards given to students at periodic levels of achievement. Also, we used our sixth grade Junior Council to run the fundraiser and share in the planning. Our school community was motivated due to the community being tight-knit and generous in their support of a great cause. Students were motivated to earn various prizes, and there was a “penny war” competition among the grade levels. The community, families, staff, and students were also so generous in their giving because Riley has positively impacted so many lives. Even being in Northwest Indiana, we have a large number of students who receive medical care at Riley.

If you could send a message to other school leaders who are thinking about starting a Riley fundraiser at their school, what would you say to encourage them?

Nick: It may seem daunting, but start small! Just do something, like penny wars, a walk-a-thon, or a grade-level challenge. You will be shocked how generous people are when giving to Riley. Communication with students, staff, parents, and the community is the most impactful role an administrator can play throughout the fundraiser – clearly communicate with these stakeholders what the goal is and where you are in terms of reaching the goal.