Halley and Ian McDonald know what it’s like to have a child in the hospital.
“You don’t want to leave in case something happens, and you just can’t think about anything else,” Halley McDonald said Saturday in the pediatric unit at St. Vincent Healthcare.
The Billings couple spent a week at St. Vincent in October when their 10-month-old son, Cody, was diagnosed with meningitis. The bright-eyed little boy died Oct. 23 of complications from the illness, six weeks before he turned 1.
Before the baby’s death, the McDonalds already had received gifts for their son’s Dec. 13 birthday. That left them in a quandary, Ian McDonald said.
“Do we stuff them away somewhere, do we let ourselves be consumed by grief or do we try and pay it forward because the staff here was so awesome?” he said.
The couple chose the last option, to hold a toy drive they dubbed Cody’s Crusade, and bring joy to other children in the hospital and their parents. In little more than a week the McDonalds were inundated with toys, which they helped to distribute Saturday.
The toy drive was held in conjunction with a visit by famous princesses, including Anna and Elsa from “Frozen,” Merida, Cinderella and Snow White, provided by Ever After Events. The costumed royalty read books to children and then visited patients in their rooms.
They also crowned 3-year-old Eva McDonald princess for a day. The little brown-haired girl enjoyed her time wearing a tiara and accompanying the princesses and her mother to visit the patients and their families.
Amber Pisk, manager of pediatrics and the pediatric intensive care unit at St. Vincent, said no one expects to spend time at the hospital during the holiday season.
“So we try to make the season a little brighter for them and bring some cheer to a time that may not be so cheery,” she said.
Six children were housed in pediatrics on Saturday, ranging in age from 2 months to 14 years old, Pisk said. The princesses peeked into each room, talking with the patients or their parents.
Then they or Halley McDonald and her daughter or young girls who posed as Santa’s helpers handed out presents to the patients and their siblings. Among them were 1-year-old Legend Walls, sitting in a crib, his mother, Danica Montana, nearby.
After the gift-givers had left the room, Montana said their visit had brought a smile to her son’s face.
“It’s nice,” she said. “It’s a blessing.”
In another room, Taryn and Jonathan Bauwens, of Laurel, sat with their 2-month-old son, Preston, a patient, and their 3-year-old daughter, Aubrey. Taryn Bauwens recognized Halley McDonald because Bauwens and her husband are part of a couple’s group with other members of McDonald’s family.
Bauwens told McDonald that they had said “lots and lots of prayers for Cody” when the baby was in the hospital. After McDonald and her daughter handed toys to the Bauwens, the two women hugged.
“It was just heartwarming to know that they’re doing it for such a great cause,” Bauwens said after the McDonalds left the room. “We were not expecting this. To do that for other families means a lot.”
In an interview, Ian McDonald’s arm wrapped around his wife, he talked about his son.
“(Cody) had the best laugh in the world,” he said. “We’re lucky in this day and age to have captured it on our phones and in videos. It still brightens up our day.”
Halley McDonald said Cody “was just so happy and he loved his sister.”
“Every morning, the first thing they’d do when they saw each other was giggle,” she said, emotion in her voice. “He’d smile and she’d smile back and that’s the one thing I miss the most, hearing them laugh at each other.”
She was inspired to do the toy drive after a friend in Denver organized one in Cody's memory in Colorado.
“I just felt I needed to do the same thing here,” Halley McDonald said. “So we asked people to donate toys in honor of his first birthday, so that we could help people, not only financially but emotionally.”
Lots of people responded, going far beyond the couple’s expectations. With many more toys than were needed for the hospital, the couple set up a Facebook page, Cody’s Crusade of Billings.
“If somebody feels like they need some help, we’d be more than happy to look through what we’ve got and help them out,” she said.
The couple’s generosity wasn’t limited to the toy drive. They also gave the gift of life, donating Cody’s organs.
“There are three kids out there who are living because of him,” Halley McDonald said. “We’re trying to change other people’s lives with his legacy, so we hope people feel the love that he is providing.”
To keep that legacy going, the couple hopes to make the toy drive an annual event. Ian McDonald said the support he and his wife got from family, friends and even strangers before and after Cody’s death was overwhelming.
That’s something the couple would like to bring into other people’s lives.
“It’s easy, especially in this day and age, to be a pessimist, to be cynical,” he said. “Going through this process, it’s given me a lot of faith in humanity. There is a lot of good out there, and this is our small part that we’re playing to try and do some good.”