Ever since he was very young, 11-year-old Oliver Koehler has routinely visited SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital to manage his various food allergies, but Jan. 8 was the first time he went home with a present just for him.

It was Cheeriodicals Day at the hospital, and more than 200 children received a bright green box. Inside Oliver’s box, specifically packed for a boy his age, were toys, goodies and magazines, including one commemorating the 2011 Cardinals World Series win. “My son was so excited when he opened his box, it was like Christmas all over again,” says Yvonne Koehler, Oliver’s mother and a nurse at the hospital.

Jay Fox, a Northwestern Mutual employee, delivers a box to Oliver Koehler. Photo courtesy of SSM Cardinal Glennon’s Children’s Medical Center.

A partnership between Northwestern Mutual-St. Louis and Birmingham-based Cheeriodicals, an online company offering customizable, goodie-filled gift boxes themed to the recipient’s tastes and hobbies, made the surprise gifts possible. The day before the event, more than 100 Northwestern Mutual employees came together at the Hilton Ballpark downtown to assemble the boxes, filling them to the brim with age-appropriate reading materials, crafts and toys. After delivery to the hospital, courtesy of Two Men and a Truck, the boxes were hand-delivered to the children.

While this is the second year Northwestern Mutual has partnered with Cheeriodicals to bring the event to St. Louis—in 2013 boxes were delivered to young patients at St. Louis Children’s Hospital—it is the first time employees assembled them by hand. “There was an incredible difference between delivering shipped boxes we didn’t have anything to do with and actually having team members spend two hours putting them together with the same level of care as if it were for their own son or daughter,” says Gerard Hempstead, managing partner of the St. Louis branch of Northwestern Mutual, who spearheaded the event.

Matt Banderman, Northwestern Mutual financial representative, presents a child with a Cheeriodicals box. Photo courtesy of Rob Westrich with Westrich Photography.

The company’s employees are no strangers to giving back. Service, along with faith, mastery and perseverance, are important corporate values, says Hempstead. When he took over as managing partner in 2011, the office forecast its vision for 2015, which included giving $500,000 and 5,000 hours to the community. “We ask people to tell us how much money or time they’ve donated, and at the end of 2013, we were already at more than 4,000 hours and had exceeded our $500,000 vision. Serving people is just what we do,” Hempstead says.

Cheeriodicals has partnered with other Northwestern Mutual branches to bring Cheeriodicals Day to hospitals all over the country, including events in Michigan, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida. Nebraska and Ohio. The first Cheeriodicals Day took place two years ago at the Children’s Hospital of Alabama, after company founder Gary Parisher pitched the idea to his local Northwestern Mutual representative. “I shared the idea of a corporation underwriting the cost for each child to get a gift box,” Parisher says. “And this wouldn’t just be a monetary donation—the idea was for the companies to be there in person, so they could experience what it’s like to give those gift boxes to the children.”

Since then, at least 10 other Northwestern Mutual offices have brought the event to their local hospitals, says Hempstead. “It’s a total life-changer,” he notes. “With the snow, people can become grouchy because of traffic or not being able to get to work on time, but at the end of the day, to go to the children’s hospital and see these sick kids, it puts everything in perspective.”

Photo by Rob Westrich of Westrich Photography
Pictured: Northwestern Mutual employees with the Two Men and a Truck delivery team