Family’s kindness shines during the holidays

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It takes a well-kindled spirit to move someone to spend their entire Christmas Day visiting the sick.

“Let’s face it,” Addi Eastman said frankly, “nobody wants to be in the hospital on Christmas Day.”

Eastman was the charge nurse on the medical adult floor at Kalispell Regional Medical Center Dec. 25, working with four other nurses, when in came a woman in a wheelchair bearing gifts — lots of them.

Starla Barnes, together with her husband Shannon and their daughter Elissiah, delivered presents to all the patients on the floor.

Eastman remembers well that when Barnes placed a blanket in the hands of a man in his 70s, it brought him to tears.

“He was elated, absolutely overjoyed,” Eastman said.

Shannon pushed Starla’s wheelchair into each room accompanied by their 5-year old bubbly, heartsome daughter treating everyone she met like they were family.

For Eastman and the nurses who saw these “angels” sweep in, Christmas will never be the same. They were all overwhelmed and tears fell from their eyes, too.

“We nurses don’t often get to see the positive things going on in the community,” Eastman said. “What a morale boost it was for us. It was so moving, so amazing.”

Starla was paralyzed in 2009 after she was knocked off her motorcycle in a downtown Kalispell intersection by a hit-and-run driver. By 2015 she was just beginning to be able to stand on her own and was learning to walk. She was then tragically re-paralyzed after the family’s car was rear-ended while they were in Denver promoting a new paralysis recovery center. In the collision Shannon suffered a traumatic brain injury. Their daughter was not injured.

It seems nothing can diminish the shine Starla radiates, however.

Besides her Capturing the Starz photo-booth business, she and Shannon established the Gifts of Love Program in conjunction with their successful Moving Forward Adaptive Sports program. For the last five years, together with her family, the former Ms. Wheelchair USA and first woman to compete in a wheelchair for Mrs. Montana America visits every floor of the hospital, giving gifts to all the patients. The annual trek takes between eight and 12 hours.

“It’s worth it to be able to see the love and joy it brings to their faces,” Starla said.

The Gifts of Love program has expanded over the years and also supports 300 families annually. About half of the funding comes directly from the Barneses; the other half is funded through business and individual donations. Starla thanked her troop of volunteers who help wrap all the gifts, as well as the drop-off locations that collect the donations.

“I know what it’s like to be in a hospital at Christmas,” she said. “I do it because I don’t want anyone to feel alone. And the range of emotions is unique and inspiring. It’s always an exciting experience!”

As for Eastman and how it felt witnessing the family’s kindness, she said, “I’ve been a nurse for 10 years and have never, ever seen anything like that. “It was the coolest thing ever.”

Community editor Carol Marino may be reached at 758-4440 or community@dailyinterlake.com.

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