PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Tucked away in an old mill building in Olneyville is a small company making a big difference for children facing serious illnesses.
Aaron Horowitz is among the seven people who have reached 25,000 around the world using state-of-the-art stuffed animals.
“The kids control when their duck gets chemotherapy so you place this port right here they act a little surprised,” Horowitz said.
Horowitz is the owner of Sproutel, a patient-centered research and development company that makes toys to help children newly diagnosed with a chronic illness learn and cope through playing.
One stuffed animal is the My Special Aflac Duck, which is for patients with pediatric cancer.
“When we touch this calm card to the duck’s chest, the duck starts to settle down and we take deep breaths with the duck so we’ll say, ‘breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth,’ and so nurses will use this calm card for deep breathing and help kids calm down,” Horowitz said.
Three-year-old Trystan Jackson was the first child to receive the Special Aflac Duck.
“Seeing her eyes light up getting a friend who was just like her, that was going through the same experience, that is really what brings it all home for me,” Horowitz recalled.
Since then the Aflac Duck has been given to 18,000 families in all 50 states and Japan since 2018.
For about five years throughout his childhood, Horowitz said he self-administered daily injections, and sat in countless doctor’s offices.
“As a child, I grew up with human growth hormone deficiency,” he said. “When we get into these stories about how our product impacts people it kind of makes me see things coming full circle and contextualizing that experience I had as a child as a way that I can then empower other children.”
His childhood experience was still fresh in his mind when he met a group of students doing medical research on kids with diabetes.
“What they were doing was using this imaginative play was acting out everything in their lives that they didn’t have control over and so that was kind of our lightbulb moment,” Horowitz said.
Then came Rufus 2.0 — the bear with diabetes. The iconic bear from JDRF was brought to life by Sproutel using augmented reality.
“It’s a great teaching tool, it’s very actionable now so they’re not just having a friend who knows what they’re going through, but they’re learning how to manage Rufus and themselves blood sugar,” said Kristin Horowitz, National Community Engagement with JDRF.
More than 7,000 children have received Rufus 2.0 since it was launched last January, including three dozen right here in Rhode Island.
“There’s one little boy in particular who just, as soon as he saw him he just said, ‘that’s my buddy, he has diabetes just like me,’ and you know that’s what this is all about,” Horowitz said.
Both the Aflac Duck and Rufus are free for children with illness through partnerships with JDRF and Aflac.
Sproutel has also made a third stuffed animal named Purrble, a cuddly, interactive tool to help you find calm in moments of stress, overwhelm, and other big emotions.