Just past 7:30 a.m., the cart awaits on the basement floor beneath the All Children's Hospital cafeteria. The blue plastic carrier looks like any other, but this one is ready to roll on a special mission that brightens mornings and touches hearts with a simple cup of coffee.
It is stocked with containers of juice, Styrofoam cups, ice water, cream and, of course, the featured attraction: an extra-large container of freshly brewed java.
For exhausted parents who have spent restless, worried nights upstairs in their child's room - catching whatever sleep they can on fold-out beds and chairs, or staying awake to comfort their ailing loved one - the cart and the all-volunteer hospital team that pushes it will be a welcome sight, indeed.
Another shift of Parent Coffee, a program coordinated by ACH's Volunteer Resources Department, is about to get under way. The tradition began more than 20 years ago as an act of love and support by concerned staffers - back when an early-morning cup of coffee was harder for parents to come by - and is still going strong.
"Don't forget these - hot, hot, hot," says Ann Taylor, a catering staff worker who rushes over with a plate of just-prepared Danish pastries.
With that, the crew for this day's round - Brittany Nelms, a Volunteer Resources coordinator who oversees the initiative, Annual Giving secretary Waleska Lozada and new All Children's Hospital Foundation Executive Vice President Jenine Rabin - move into action.
It's no coincidence that all three are All Children's staffers. In fact, that's a prerequisite. Only members of the hospital can participate. They wake up early and give their own time to reach out with a gesture that may seem small, but overflows with meaning - both for the grateful adults on the receiving end and the volunteers making the rounds.
"It's really a lot of fun," Waleska tells Jenine, who's taking part in her first Parent Coffee run. "The parents are tired and stressed and they get really excited about seeing you sometimes. The ones who know about us will even put out signs like, 'Welcome Parent Coffee Team.' "
But many parents have no idea that the quiet knock on their door between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. will bring someone other than a doctor or nurse. They've been thrust suddenly into a world of anxiety over an illness or injury to their child. Sleep, if it comes at all, can be interrupted by frequent visits from the medical staff through the night and pre-dawn hours. Minds are fogged with fatigue and worry.
And then comes the knock.
"Good morning, I'm a volunteer, would you like some coffee?" Brittany asks, after opening the door to a room on the eighth floor. Inside, a tired dad sitting on the couch nods affirmatively and offers a heart-felt, "Thank you!"
Door by door, the volunteer trio repeats the routine: a quiet knock and introduction, and inside the rooms a smile from a parent or two craving a caffeine boost - or perhaps just a cold drink to re-awaken their senses.
The pastries disappear quickly as the three women move through the unit, then take an elevator down to the seventh floor - starting with the oncology and hematology wing on 7 South. They enter through double-sealed doors that only let visitors pass through when hands are washed - and both doors must be closed before the next one opens to prevent airborne germs from entering,
"This floor can get a little tough," Waleska cautions.
Jenine knocks on the first door: "Good morning, I'm a volunteer, can I get you some coffee?" A young couple gladly accepts the offer. A few rooms down, a father holding a toddler in his arms tells Waleska he'd love some orange juice. A young mom, lying on a couch and covered by a sheet, looks up at Brittany with a look of appreciation at the unexpected special delivery. Another dad is simply too tired and preoccupied, and politely passes on anything from the cart.
The group makes its way back through the double doors to 7 North, where infants to teens recovering from surgery and their parents can be found. An older boy in a darkened room tells Brittany that his parents had just headed downstairs to the cafeteria to get a quick bite. "Well, tell them Parent Coffee will be back tomorrow morning," she replies with a smile.
Moments later, a mom named Brenda catches up with Waleska down the hall - her husband Lorenzo, who had declined any of the offerings, has changed his mind and wants a cup of coffee after all as he stays with his son, Lorenzo Jr. "It's so nice that they do this," Brenda says. "It's a little thing that makes you feel good."
Jenine has to leave a few minutes early to get to a meeting. But her first Parent Coffee experience has made a powerful impression.
"It's just so human," she says. "It makes me think why we don't do this more as people, not just in a hospital setting."
Soon after, Brittany and Waleska wrap up their rounds, buoyed by knowing they had brought some relief to weary parents in need of a boost. They ride the elevator back to the basement with the cart, where Ann Taylor greets them amid the busy breakfast-hour kitchen.
Ann doesn't get to see the faces of the parents, but she can imagine their surprise.
"You've got a sick kid and you're worried all night long - so this is like bringing them a soul food, something soothing for their spirits," she says.
Before heading off to their respective All Children's jobs, Brittany and Waleska catch their breath and fuel up for the morning with their own coffee and breakfast. And they talk about their path to All Children's - and ultimately becoming involved with the Parent Coffee.
Waleska, a New Jersey native, worked in the Neonatal Infant Care Unit for two years, organizing the department and ordering supplies. Her upbeat personality made her a natural to give NICU tours on behalf of the Foundation, and eventually opened a door there for her as a secretary for Annual Giving and the Children's Miracle Network Hospital Team. Once she arrived at the Foundation, she kept hearing about Parent Coffee and decided to tag along one morning. She was instantly hooked.
"It is such a great way to start your morning," she says. "It puts things in perspective as far as life is concerned straight off the bat. It makes me realize I have nothing to worry about. And I'm so fortunate to be able to do this for them."
Brittany, who grew up in Georgia before a move to Bradenton in high school, graduated from the University of South Florida and worked briefly in the All Children's technology department. When the opportunity arose to join Volunteer Resources arose this summer, she jumped at it. She's loved worked daily with volunteers who want to make a difference in people's lives. And though she had never heard of Parent Coffee when she joined the department, her new role put her right in the middle of coordinating it.
"So often, parents see someone they don't know come in the room and assume you're there to check on their child," she says. "The other day, a mom saw me and said, 'Oh, he's on dietary restrictions.' And I said, 'No, this is for you.' And she's like, 'Ohhh. I'd love some coffee.' "
Brittany and Waleska have formed their own team that makes the rounds once a month, just as other volunteer tandems do. But some mornings remain uncovered, depending on the number of participants. The goal is to have volunteers manning the cart every day, and perhaps eventually creating an evening round as well.
In the end, that's what makes the program unique: giving anyone - in any department of the hospital - a chance to get involved in the hospital's mission with kids and families first hand.
A hand that extends the essence of caring - one cup of coffee at a time.
Any staffer interested in becoming a Parent Coffee volunteer can e-mail Brittany Nelms at Brittany.Nelms@allkids.org.