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Mike Gzybowski: Every Kid Needs a Pal

Mike Gzybowski J.D. '88 with his ER Pals.

By Vanessa Maxey
Realizing a visit to the hospital emergency room can often be traumatic for children and adults alike, Mike Gzybowski, JD '88, created a program to lessen the fright of what is usually a scary ordeal.

"I did not plan on working with the children, but I noticed right off how they would come into a strange environment with parents who were stressed out and not acting normal. The ER is boring, it smells funny, and it has weird noises. It's not parent friendly and definitely not kid friendly," says Gzybowski, who works as a lawyer by day and volunteers at a Fort Wayne, Ind., hospital in the evening.

His program, ER Pals, provides hospitals with stuffed animals to give to kids who require urgent medical treatment in the emergency room.

ER Pals started in 1999 when Gzybowski ordered 50 stuffed animals for the hospital where he volunteers. Since then, the program has been able to give away 1,500 animals a month to children in Fort Wayne emergency rooms. Plans are underway to begin the program in other cities, such as Indianapolis, Ind., Cincinnati, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.

Gzybowski came up with the idea while driving down the road one day. The nonprofit program's slogan came easily: Every kid needs a pal. "It's not something I thought of, but more like it's something I discovered. If you're open to find something, you'll find it," says Gzybowski.

Recently, Gzybowski met with the biggest marketing firm in Indiana and it has agreed to help him distribute 1,000,000 animals a year, adorned with the logo "ERpals."

Currently, funding for the furry animals comes from grade schools, local businesses, sororities, and fraternities, but Gzybowski hopes to get additional funding from national health organizations. At the rate that it's growing, ER Pals is predicted to become one of the biggest charities in the United States in a few short years.

The effect that the stuffed animals have had on the kids is incredible. Gzybowski remembers a 3-year-old boy who had gotten a button stuck up his nose. The doctor slipped an ER Pal into the pocket of his coat and told the little boy to keep his eyes on the stuffed animal, and when he was through, he could have it. Distracted by the animal, the boy paid no attention to the doctor who successfully pulled out the button. Kids can also be caught clutching the animals when they go for X-rays and be seen cuddling them when they go to bed. Gzybowski says people are shocked to find out he is a lawyer who volunteers so much time.

"I don't want to punch the clock and sell my life in six-minute increments. I want to make a difference. I want to do something that means more. I want to get something more and give something back. If ER Pals goes nationwide and touches the lives of millions of children, that will be my legacy. I would be very happy about that."


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