Phil’s Friends • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Caring packages

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Phil’s Friends ensures those fighting cancer never feel alone with a cardboard box filled with goodies

In June 2018, Colleen Small was diagnosed with endometrial cancer, which begins in the uterus.

After surgery and chemotherapy in December, the cancer went into remission.

During Small’s time in the hospital, the Cedar Lake resident received a cardboard box.

“I remember when my mom got that box, it literally brightened her day every time she looked at it,” said her son, Michael Small. “She never wanted it to leave the hospital, (and) she wanted it with her all the time.”

Decorated with colorful designs, the box contained several items, including a blanket, crossword puzzles, lip balm and a Bible.

It also included notes of encouragement from strangers.

Unfortunately, Colleen’s cancer returned earlier this summer. She passed away July 5 at 71 years old.

Michael Small still has the box his mother received.

“She kept it, and now we have it in our house,” Small said.

Phil’s Friends
Volunteers from Indiana Wesleyan University prepare boxes for the nonprofit, Christ-centered group Phil’s Friends. (Photo provided by Phil’s Friends)

The box came from a nonprofit, Christ-centered group called Phil’s Friends, started by Phil Zielke.

Zielke was diagnosed with Stage 4B Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2004 and was in the most advanced stage of the disease for months.

But aggressive rounds of chemotherapy pushed the cancer into remission, only to return in 2005. Still fighting, Zielke was deemed cancer free by November that same year.

Zielke wanted to encourage others fighting cancer. That’s when he came up with the idea to send care packages.

Phil’s Friends opened its first office in Roselle, Ill. In 2017, the organization opened its second office in Crown Point.

“We are about bringing hope, support and encouragement to cancer patients who are walking that long cancer journey,” said Judy Earnshaw, development manager for Phil’s Friends Crown Point office. “The care packages are to help people get through their journey and that they are not alone.”

Earnshaw, who lives in Rensselaer, also has been touched by the disease. One of her closest friends, who was diagnosed with cancer, encouraged Earnshaw to get involved with Phil’s Friends.

“She received her own care package during her journey, (and) she kept bugging me to get involved,” Earnshaw said. “I kept telling her ‘no,’ but it weighed on my heart, (and when) she lost her battle with leukemia four years ago, that’s when I decided to get involved.”

Phil’s Friends relies on volunteers to decorate the care packages as a fun group activity. Little League and softball teams, Girl and Boy Scout troops and a host of other organizations meet to assemble the packages.

“If you can color in the lines, I have something for you to do,” Earnshaw said. “Whether you’re 4 or 104, I have something for you to do.”

Since opening the office two years ago, the Crown Point operation has created about 7,000 care packages.

“There’s about $50 worth of items inside each care package. Things like a hat, footwear, water bottle, toothpaste,” Earnshaw said. “It’s a very simple way to help someone.”

To return the joy to someone battling cancer, Michael Small and a group of about 30 youth baseball players with Morris Elite Baseball gathered on a warm August evening to begin building care packages.

“It’s just so hard sometimes when you’re trying to figure out how to help. This is really a great way,” Small said. “I have my kids, my wife, teammates, people we have something in common with, baseball, who are able to do this all at one time, (and) there are a lot of people out there.”

Gloria Morris, whose husband, Bobby, runs the baseball organization, says Phil’s Friends is a great teaching tool for youngsters.

“We’re trying to get our kids to really understand the importance of giving back,” Morris said. “Phil’s Friends do so much amazing outreach for cancer patients.”

Click here to read more from the Oct-Nov 2019 issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.


  • Michael Puente

    Michael Puente works full time for WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago Public Radio. He covers politics, environment and features in Northwest Indiana, southwest Michigan and Chicago’s South Side. For 11 years, Michael wrote for the Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana. Michael also spent two years writing for the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill., covering Chicago’s northwest suburbs. Michael is a contributing writer for Cafe Latino Lifestyles Magazine in Chicago and an adjunct faculty instructor at Calumet College of St. Joseph in Hammond.


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