The Man With a Magic Castle: How Riley Volunteer Bob Baxter Changes Lives
Bob Baxter volunteers at Riley Hospital by rolling around a Magic Castle full of toys for children.
Some call him the “Kris Kringle of Riley”, others say he’s the “Magic Castle Man.”
No matter the moniker, most around Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health agree that 86-year-old Bob Baxter is a treasure. An elder who has enthusiastically worked as a volunteer almost every week of the last 19 years of his life, spreading smiles around the hospital, dragging a colorful wooden castle cart behind him.
The cart weighs 450 pounds. Pushing it through the hallways of Riley is no easy feat for a man in his golden years, but as Bob points out, neither is seeing sick children.
The Magic Castle, a mystical-looking cart containing toys and trinkets, was first introduced to the hospital 19 years ago. The idea was conjured up two years prior by a freshly retired Bob and friends. “After working as the president of the Riley Children’s Foundation I wanted to give back, so I started spending more time at my Kiwanis club--but I missed Riley and the kids.”
Fortuitously, a coffee date with some fellow club members soon led to a conversation on how to help Riley. Before long, Bob recalls, the chat became a brainstorming session. “The cart was born that day,” he says.
The idea: create a kid-themed wooden cart with numerous doors and drawers and fill it with toys and trinkets to pass out to patients. Ultimately, says Bob, Kiwanis decided to fund the cost of one cart while Riley Children’s Foundation flipped the bill for the other. “We were all excited,” recalls Bob. “So, we took the idea to a firm and they created two themes: a circus and a castle.”
Both designs were nice. The group was torn. So, they decided to let the VIPs pick: The patients.
“We put a picture of the circus cart design and the castle cart up on closed circuit TV in each Riley room and asked the patients to vote for their favorite,” says Bob. “The results were overwhelming. The kids wanted the castle.”
Since then, the kids have come and gone but the contents of the cart have remained the same: coloring books, hats, silly glasses, stuffed animals, plastic spiders, dinosaurs and snakes for the boys, pastel-colored purses and rings for the girls.
Bob’s been playing Santa so long, he says it’s now a science. “When I give a ring to a young lady, I always do it by color. If she is age 7 and younger she’ll like pink. If she’s ages 7 to 12 she’ll fancy blue but if she’s older it’s always purple. I can walk into a room, have a ring in my hand and it will be purple and the girl will say, ‘how did you know my favorite color is purple?’ remarks Bob with a wink.
The offering of presents is process-driven. “We pick things out for the kids they never get into the cart,” Bob explains. “And we don’t ever ask the kids what they want, we just know,” he says. “Nothing is taken back. Anything the kids touch they own and then when we get low we fill the cart with new toys. Everything is brand new, sealed and safe.”
Bob, who personally replenishes the cart’s contents each month, takes the task seriously. “No glass eyes on stuffed animals, no shedding items, no sharp edges.”
How does the cart stay filled? “I have people who have stayed with us for up to 19 years donating money to keep the toys stocked,” Bob says, “and we are so grateful for their generosity.”
The castle is always on the move. Nothing is off limits—not even patients in isolation. “We’ll knock on the door and tell a child we have the castle. We tell them we can’t come in but we want to leave some things for you. No one gets left behind,” says Bob. This includes a patient’s parents and siblings: “We’ll give the parents a deck of cards or a book of crossword puzzles to help them pass the time and offer trinkets to the brothers and sisters of patients,” he says.
But after giving so much of his life to others, the senior who is proud to deliver ‘smile therapy’, is finally winding down. “The cart weighs 450 pounds but after my 85th birthday, it started to feel more like 800,” Bob says jokingly. Still, he’s serious about finding a successor and is currently looking for more cart volunteers.
What keeps Bob coming back?
“I’ve been coming to Riley for 47 years,” he says with a knowing smile, “and I’ve seen so much in my time. I often hear parents say ‘this is the first time my child has smiled since we’ve been here.’ How can you not come back after that? It doesn’t matter if a child is 18 months or 18 years, when you get a smile, you know you’ve done your job.”
-- By Sarah Burns