It’s the Wendy’s Frosty delivered to a person with cancer who can no longer tolerate other foods.
The trips to the zoo with a grandfather who loved animals before he is no longer well enough to go with his family.
A robotic cat that brings comfort for a person with Alzheimer’s disease who is missing the cat that couldn’t come to the memory care facility with her.
Little things that bring joy, comfort and humanity to someone in hospice care.
That was Steven Frantz’s goal when he started the nonprofit organization the Importance of Little Things in 2015.
Someone in hospice or dealing with a life-threatening disease, a loved one or professional caregiver can apply for a $150 grant to fulfill a wish.
Now three years in, almost 40 wishes have been fulfilled.
It’s a continuation of what Frantz, 65, was doing when he worked as a social worker in hospice for 10 years.
Frantz, who grew up in South Texas, went to the University of Texas for his undergraduate degree and to Texas Tech University for law school. He then became an assistant attorney general for the state.
“For me personally, I was wasting my time,” he says. “I was not being present.”
Life was taking him in a different direction. Family members and friends got sick, and he discovered he was really good at caring for them in their final days.
At age 48, he returned to the University of Texas to get a master’s degree in social work and started working in hospice at age 50.
“I enjoyed hospice so much better,” he said. “I didn’t find being a lawyer rewarding.”
What he saw while working in hospice was that some clients were well-supported by their families. Other clients had no one visiting them except for hospice workers.
In hospice, he says, “you see the best of humanity and you see the worst of humanity. It’s all about quality of life.”
He found himself and other folks in the profession helping his clients with things to make their remaining time better.
“There are special people in hospice,” he says, “but they are overworked and underpaid … they don’t feel special, but they know what they do is special.”
He remembers a 102-year-old patient who had served in World War II. The patient talked about how he’d really like to taste Norwegian chocolate again. Frantz, who didn’t even know Norwegian chocolate was a thing, went online and found some for $35 for 3 pounds. He bought it and brought it to his client.
“It was a little thing,” Frantz says. “He wasn’t expecting it. It was impactful.”
He knew about a program in Maine that granted wishes to people in hospice, and he thought that maybe, one day, when he was ready to retire, he would partner with that program. The Maine program went away — he’s not sure why — and Frantz had to start his own program.
He gathered his friends, many of whom he knew from his days in the Texas attorney general’s office, and formed a board. He started having fundraisers, such as a lunch event, at his house.
“What’s better than asking for money to then give it away?” Frantz says.
The people behind the Importance of Little Things set up a website and created a form that people could fill out to apply for grants. One stipulation: The money couldn’t be used for something medically necessary that should be covered by insurance. It had to be for something that would bring joy to a person with a life-threatening illness.
It has been a slow start. The Importance of Little Things folks sent out pamphlets to hospices and attended a conference for hospice providers, but so far mainly two hospices in California have been the ones to apply.
“People don’t believe it,” says board member Sheela Rai. “They think there is some kind of a catch or that we’re selling something.”
Frantz says sometimes hospice workers are so busy covering many patients, and in rural places covering large areas of geography as well, that they might not have time to stop to fill out the online form.
Donna Olson, an administrator with Interim HealthCare the Gift of Hospice in San Diego, found out about the Importance of Little Things from an employee who knows a friend of Frantz’s. She looked up the website, found the form and began submitting requests. Her social workers let her know when they have a client who needs something.
“It has been fantastic,” she says. “We’ve made some people very happy.”
She’s been able to give a stay at a beach hotel to a family so they could go to the beach together one last time. She’s given activity aprons to people with Alzheimer’s disease to keep them calm, or a robotic cat to those who had cats as pet. “The dementia has progressed to the degree (that) they think it’s their cat,” Olson says. “One woman calls the battery-operated kitty by her kitty’s name. It wows them. Suddenly you see joy again.”
One of her clients was a man who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He wanted to go with his son to an indoor skydiving place.
“The place was so wonderful,” she says. “They got the patient with ALS in his final three weeks of life up in the air. For him to feel weightless and even without pain for even a minute. …”
The Importance of Little Things gives a gift to her clients as well as their families, but it also offers wonderful moments for employees, she says.
“It’s a moment of joy for us in an otherwise difficult day,” she says.
At first, her staff was reluctant to have her apply for grants. “Now they understand, it’s worth bringing up,” she says. “If they’ve got an idea, we’ll do it.”
Usually, she says, she’ll fill out the form and hear back from Frantz in three or four days, and he always sends a personal email thanking Olson for sending him another wonderful request.
Heather Shadley-Tovar, a hospice social worker who has applied for the Importance of Little Things grants, says what she likes about the program is that it trusts social workers to know what their clients need, and it’s easy to fill out the form. “It seems like it’s too simple,” she says. “We are so used to filling out so many pages of documents.”
“It’s like the dream,” she says. “It’s low-barrier, it’s easy to access, they trust my judgment.”
She has used it to buy a baby monitor for a family with a critically ill baby, to provide a DVD player for a bed-bound 21-year-old, and to give a man with cancer Wendy’s Frostys when nothing else worked for his nausea. Every time a social worker, nurse or chaplain visited, they brought a Frosty to him. He had been a bit guarded, she says, but the Frosty helped him break down the barriers and talk to visitors.
“It made him feel cared about,” she says.
When Jordan Moon lost her stepfather, Milton Hay, to a stroke, she was having trouble coming back to the house after his death. They had had a miniature horse visit an uncle who was dying and saw what a difference it made.
Her stepfather loved babies of any kind, especially baby animals, Moon says. They would get him calendars of baby animals.
The Importance of Little Things provided a miniature horse, Tori, to be in the house the first time she visited after he died. “He would have loved this,” she says. “It felt like she brought him back in a way.
“For so many reasons, there was a lot of emotion tied into going back down there for the first time,” she says. “The comfort of the horse was able to quell all of that anxiety and turn what could have been an emotionally devastating day into something wonderful. … It was an incredible opportunity.”
The Importance of Little Things would like to give more Frostys, more miniature horse visits, more robotic cats, more end-of-life experiences. They just need people to apply.
“You should be so proud,” Rai says to Frantz. “It’s not about how many if you are helping people.”
The Importance of Little Things
To apply for a grant or for more information, go to theimportanceoflittlethings.org.
About Giving Ways
Giving Ways tells the story of people in Austin who start nonprofit organizations.
Read past Giving Ways stories on these organizations at mystatesman.com:
- Run to Hear
- Hand to Hold
- Preemptive Love Coalition
- Storybook Project of Texas
- Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Texas
- The Gathering
- Mary House
- Wonders and Worries
- Austin Speech Labs
- Girls Empowerment Network
- 2 Dance 2 Dream
- Casey’s Circle
- Austin Center for Grief and Loss
- CareBox Program
- Water to Thrive