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Donated dinners bring families together during holiday hospital stay

Two-year-old Sophia Holth watches from her mother Emily's hospital bed while her dad Jonathan cuts her turkey as the Grand Forks family enjoys Thanksgiving dinner at Altru Hospital on Thursday. On Tuesday Emily prematurely gave birth to daughter Evelyn, but the Holths could still enjoy a full Thanksgiving meal thanks to an anonymous East Grand Forks donor who provides free Thanksgiving and Christmas meals to those who have children in Altru. Grand Forks Herald photo by John Stennes.1 / 2
Jonathan and Emily Holth check in on their daughter Evelyn in the neonatal intensive care unit at Altru Hospital before they have their Thanksgiving meal in Emily's room just down the hall. Grand Forks Herald photo by John Stennes.2 / 2

While many gathered around tables to share their Thanksgiving meal, the Holth family of Grand Forks ate their turkey and mashed potatoes from trays in a room in Altru Hospital's family birthing center.

Jonathan, Emily and Sophia, 2, ate just down the hall from the neonatal intensive care unit, where the newest addition to their family, Evelyn, was sleeping.

Evelyn arrived earlier than expected, entering the world at 3 pounds 12 ounces on Tuesday, but in just time to spend the holiday with her family.

"She wasn't supposed to come until the end of January, but she had other plans," Jonathan said.

The preemie's unexpected arrival had the family spending their Thanksgiving in Altru, but the generosity of a pair of strangers ensured the Holths and any family with a child in the hospital could share a holiday meal.

Paying it forward

Since 2009, families with children hospitalized at Altru have been offered a free meal at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner thanks to a donation made by an anonymous East Grand Forks couple.

Jon Green, executive director of Altru Health Foundation, said the couple wanted to pay forward kindness they were shown while out on the East Coast.

One of the couple's adult children and spouse adopted a child from overseas and the four of them traveled east to meet the child at the airport.

An unexpected medical emergency involving the child led to the family spending Thanksgiving in hospital. There, similar program funded by an anonymous donor allowed the group to eat dinner in the hospital.

"The whole idea was to let them have a meal together," Green said. "They were so appreciative of that."

Once back home, the couple came to Green to establish a similar program. The only requirement is that the family has a child in the hospital and usually serves 20 to 25 families each holiday.

To Sherry Burg, manager of the birthing center, neonatal care center and pediatrics, the donation provides families a way to enjoy a baby's first Thanksgiving while away from home.

"Being together is an important element of our society and that's what Thanksgiving is," Burg said. "The fact that we can offer that at Altru is a lovely gift."

Coming home

Before their Thanksgiving dinner, friends and family of the Holths stopped by to see the new baby.

Each scrubbed in and peered at Evelyn through the plastic lid of her incubator. Jonathon's parents Rod and Janelle Holth canceled a trip to Wisconsin to stay to visit their newborn granddaughter.

Janelle, a nurse at Altru, said she'll be dropping by a lot to see Evelyn.

Unlike the adults in the hospital room, Sophia -- who wears a special bracelet announcing her as "Evelyn's big sister" -- has yet to see her new sibling in person.

Hospital policy doesn't allow people younger than 18 to visit the neonatal care unit during cold and flu season so Sophia has to wait until Evelyn is released, which at the earliest could be five weeks away.

"We've been showing her lots of video and pictures," Jonathon said. He and Emily added Sophia's been awaiting her sister's escape from her mom's stomach.

"She's been asking for the last month 'When is baby sister going to broke out?' " Emily said. "It'll be weird not taking (Evelyn) home with us."

While Emily was set to be discharged on Thanksgiving, the Holths chose to have the meal at the hospital and say are grateful for the donors for providing the meal.

Though Evelyn couldn't join them in the room for the dinner, they were happy she was nearby.

"It's kind of like we're together in a way," Emily said.

Call Jewett at (701) 780-1108, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1108 or send email to