In 2010, a group of friends and colleagues came together with one common goal: to make a difference in the lives of patients at Levine Children’s Hospital. Today, that group has organized itself to become The Sandbox, a nonprofit that helps children with life threatening illnesses and their families year-round. “We had all been touched by cancer in some way and wanted to give back,” says Brian Dulin, co-founder of the nonprofit. “That first year, we donated Christmas gifts for about 13 families, including the patients, their siblings and their parents. But we realized the needs don’t stop after Christmas, so we donated appliances, clothing, whatever the family needed from us.” In 2011, a social worker at the hospital asked if the group could throw a prom for a young woman who wouldn’t be able to attend her own. “We didn’t hesitate, but we knew we would need to quickly form an organization to pull it off,” Dulin says. “That’s when The Sandbox was born.” Dulin, along with Mara Campolungo, named the nonprofit ‘The Sandbox’ because of the positive image it conjures. “When you think of a sandbox, it makes you happy,” Campolungo says. “You think of playing, being a child and being innocent. We wanted to be that organization that a family could rely on to bring positivity into their lives and provide them with basic needs when they can only think of the wellness of their child.” The nonprofit held its first prom in Oct. 2011 for over 100 patients, their guests and families. Over 1,000 gowns, shoes and pieces of jewelry were donated for the girls to choose from, and the boys were given tuxes to wear from Men’s Warehouse. Aveda Institute provided space for the prom attendees to get ready, and hundreds of men and women volunteered their time to do hair, makeup and nails. “These kids are going through so much, and all we really wanted to do was give them one night to forget their illness and just have fun,” Campolungo says. “To see their faces as they got ready, as they entered their limos and walked inside Founders Hall was something incredible.” Campolungo says because Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department escorted the limos and because they had such a large “paparazzi” scene outside Founders Hall, that some people thought the president was in town. She also recalls one instance when a mother called specifically to make sure her daughter was invited to prom again this year. “She told us her daughter’s psychologist said the prom had a lasting effect on her and actually improved her mental health,” Campolungo says. “We couldn’t believe the prom had such a strong impact that it lasted months afterward.” Last year, the prom invited patients ages 13-21 from Levine Children’s Hospital, but because of the popularity of the event, the nonprofit has extended this year’s invitations to ages 6-23 from hospitals around the region. The nonprofit expects over 250 people to attend this year’s prom, which will be held Sept. 28. “The prom is a time where these young people can come together as a community without feeling like they are different,” Dulin says. “At our prom they are just one of the gang, instead of at their own prom, where they might be singled out for their illness.” The prom is named “An Evening of Believing,” because Campolungo says that is the mantra of The Sandbox. “We are all about believing,” she says. “Believing these children can make it through, that the families will survive the difficulties and believing that we can make a difference.” Aside from the prom, the nonprofit helps children and their families by donating basic needs, gift cards and time. They have a large group of volunteers they reach out to when in need of certain items. In June, The Sandbox helped a mother and her daughter, who had cancer, furnish their entire home. “The mother was in a domestic violence situation and had moved her and her daughter into a three-bedroom apartment,” Dulin says. “Through the community, we were able to completely furnish the home. Once she gets settled, she’ll send us a list of other items she may need to help get them on their feet.” “We walk with our families on a day-to-day basis,” Campolungo says. “We don’t just donate and forget about them. We stay in touch, maintain relationships and help them through this very difficult time.” She says they also work with other community organizations, such as Hometown Heroes and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Charlotte, to fill the needs of as many families as possible. “Maybe an organization doesn’t provide their families with Thanksgiving dinner, but we do,” says Campolungo. “Maybe we need an item and another organization can help us get it. We lock arms with our community and organizations to ensure the well-being of these families, because when a child is diagnosed, so is the family.” Although working with children with illness can be emotionally trying, Dulin and Campolungo say that it’s the personal connections they make that keeps them going. “Knowing that we are here for them, to assist them with the smallest or biggest need means a lot to us,” says Dulin. “Helping these families is the most unbelievable feeling.” To learn more about The Sandbox and how you can get involved, visit www.whatsinyoursandbox.org.