'Hannah's Helpers' celebrate Christmas with hundreds of meals for patients, staff at CRMC

ByHayley Salazar and Brandon Johansen KFSN logo
Thursday, December 26, 2019
'Hannah's Helpers' bring hundreds of meals to patients, staff at CRMC
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The Hanford family wanted to give back to the hospital that's helped them through challenging times -- now it's an annual tradition.

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Jeff Detlefsen sat on the couch of his Hanford home with his daughter Hannah in his arms and his wife Mary at his side. They were both smiling at the sound of Hannah's laugh. She giggled as the green light inside a clear, plastic Christmas tree flickered on and off.

"She was placed with us for a reason, and we love her," Jeff said.

Hannah was born with a rare genetic condition called Gould Syndrome that affects her blood vessels; there are only about 150 cases known worldwide. She also had a stroke in utero, which caused damage to her brain and eyesight.

But she loves lights.

"Is that so funny?" Jeff asked Hannah.

She laughed even louder.

"We are happy to have her, and she has brought out the good in so many people," Jeff said.

Hannah has brought out the good in her own family, too, especially during the holiday season.

Because of her condition, she and her family have spent a lot of time at Community Regional Medical Center, also known as CRMC, in Downtown Fresno. In 2018, Jeff and Mary spent 68 days in total with her at the hospital throughout the year.

"A simple cold will send her to the hospital because she doesn't have the immune system to fight it off or recovery from surgery, and things take longer (for her)," Jeff said.

While the hospital visits may feel lonely at times, the nurses and staff have developed a relationship with the Detlefsen's, who now call CRMC their "home hospital."

The Detlefsens pictured from left to right: Ellie, Mary, Jeff and Hannah.
Photo: Brittany Wilbur/Sweet Nectar Society

"Some of the nurses there have become family friends," says Jeff. "We've invited them to Hannah's birthday parties and things like that. They've gotten to know Hannah, and they have an interest in her."

The family knows the challenge of spending so much time away from home at the hospital. They decided it was time to give back to the nurses and patients who had to spend time away from their homes on Christmas Eve. Now it's turned into a family tradition.

Inspired by a program at another hospital, the Detlefsen's formed Hannah's Helpers, partnering with Valle Grullense, a Mexican restaurant in Hanford, to bring meals to the nurses and patients in the pediatric unit at CRMC during the holidays.

"We know how it is when you're there and you get something that's unexpected, or a special treat, or a therapy dog comes, it's always nice," Mary said. "Because a hospital can be so routine and not so fun to be at, so to have something different is cool."

Family and friends were quick to help the Detlefsen's. Volunteers signed up on social media, and close to 40 people gave up part of their Christmas Eve to deliver more than 400 enchiladas.

Mary also got some help from her oldest daughter, Ellie, and her class to make Christmas cards for patients in the pediatric unit.

Ellie and Hannah
Photo: Brittany Wilbur/Sweet Nectar Society

"People are always asking how they can help our family, and I think it's more fun when we can share it with other people," Mary said.

The Detlefsens are known for their involvement in the community. Jeff is a music teacher at Sierra Pacific High School in Hanford, and Mary taught music at the elementary and junior high levels for several years.

After graduating from Fresno State, the couple moved to the South Valley, where they were quickly beloved by their students and peers.

Their service to the community doesn't go unnoticed.

"Mr. D and Mrs. D have always been really involved, and they're super good with their students, and I think that's why everyone knows them," said Sierra Pacific senior, Irene Botello. "They are so good at giving and helping their students out."

Their active role in organizing school fundraisers and community events made it easy for business owners like Gloria Michel with Valle Grullense to get involved with Hannah's Helpers.

"I've worked with her and her restaurant for a couple of years for fundraisers," Jeff said. "There's been a few times when I've been doing fundraisers that we've communicated, and I'd been to and from the hospital, so she knew about Hannah's situation."

"I feel like she was a natural pick to see if she wanted to get involved, and she and her husband didn't hesitate," he added.

The restaurant provides Hannah's Helpers with trays of enchiladas, beans, rice and salsa. Donations are sent in from friends and family to buy drinks and desserts to pair with the meals.

Volunteers plate food for the pediatrics staff and patients on Dec. 24, 2019, at Community Regional Medical Center.

At the hospital, the volunteers made up of family, friends, and even some of Jeff's students, form an assembly line, to plate food and organize the Christmas letters. The meals are taken in a wagon down the halls, some of them delivered by Hannah herself.

"Walking around with Hannah and seeing her really happy with all the people like talking to her and just like having an interaction with her was cool," said Kaitlin Fuller, a volunteer and a junior at Sierra Pacific.

Patients and staff were thankful for the visit.

"It felt so fulfilling to be able to give back to the families who were in the hospital. To see their smiles and how grateful they were for the little things that we were doing," Botello said.

The Detlefsens' optimism through it all inspired some of their students to join in and give back.

"Even when things get super hard for them, instead of choosing to stick to the hard things and focus on all the negative, they choose to give back to other people and try to make the most of their situation," said Sara Khun, a volunteer and a senior at Sierra Pacific.

"Maybe that's not always how we are in private, but in public, we try to be optimistic," Mary said. "I think it's perspective, too. We know that things could sometimes be a lot worse. We're thankful for the days when we're at home, and we're thankful to have a place close by that takes such good care of us."

This year, Hannah's Helpers delivered about 250 enchilada meals to the patients, families and staff members in the pediatric unit.

Hannah's Helpers volunteers at Community Regional Medical Center on Dec. 24, 2019.

"It's a labor of love for us to be able to take care of our pediatric patients and their families," said Sandy Jensen, nurse manager for pediatrics and the pediatric ICU at CRMC. "For (Hannah's Helpers) to come and to want to give something back to the families that are here during Christmas is really special, and really appreciated by us."

The tradition of Hannah's Helpers is now something the staff is looking forward to enjoying every year.

Hannah was excited to see her nurse friends, too. The holiday was perfectly spent giving back, and of course, relishing in the Christmas lights.