Most 12 year olds collect Pokemon or baseball cards. But, for 7th grader Gray Garber, it’s hats. And not just any hats. Hats that are fun, happy and perfectly soft on the inside – soft enough for the delicate heads of pediatric cancer patients at the N.C. Cancer Hospital.

Gray Garber spent the last year gathering 75 hats for Kaps for Kids.
Garber presents the hats to UNC urologic oncology nurse practitioner Mary Dunn

Gray Garber started collecting hats for the NC Triangle Oncology Nursing Society’s (NC TONS) Kaps for Kids program three years ago when Katy Lynn Garber, Gray’s mom and medication assistance coordinator at UNC Health Care, brought home a flier about the new program from a co-worker.

“I brought home the flier and Gray picked it up and asked ‘What’s this?’”

That question spurred a conversation between Garber and her son – 9 at the time – about cancer, its impacts on patients and the discomfort that hair loss triggered by chemotherapy may cause a patient on a cold, wintry day.

That conversation inspired Gray. The first year he shopped for a few hats for the program. The following year, he collected around 12. This past year, that number spiked to 75.

“He just shopped for hats throughout the year and stashed them away in his closet,” said Garber. “I was shocked when we pulled them out to turn them into Kaps for Kids at how many he had gathered throughout the year. He was on a mission.”

As he shops throughout the year, Gray takes the hat selection process very seriously.

“I open every single hat I buy and check to make sure it is soft enough,” says Gray. “If it’s not, it goes back to store.”

The hats also need to be “fun and happy,” says Gray. “The best one I ever got was in the shape of a hot cocoa cup. That one was pretty cool.”

The Kaps for Kids program was started by UNC urologic oncology nurse practitioner Mary Dunn, who also serves as community outreach coordinator for NCTONS. Founded in 2011, the initiative collects hats and divides the donations between the UNC and Duke pediatric oncology programs. Last year, she collected nearly 1,300 hats and is aiming for a similar number this year.

“I have received hats from all over the state. You can feel the love and care that has gone into these hats. Gray’s contribution to our program is so heart-felt and invaluable to our patients.”

When asked what motivated him to start collecting hats, Gray simply states, “Because you have to help give to other people.”

“He is the most tender-hearted child,” said Garber. “He is always looking for ways to help other people.”

Gray’s goal for next year? 100.