PHOTO COURTESY/COHEN CHILDEN’S MEDICAL CENTER
Think about this: how often do you hear a child laughing while laying in a hospital bed? That imagery is slim to none. In today’s world, kindness is such a rare behavior that when it does present itself, the feeling can be overwhelming.
For pediatric patients and their families, that genuine happiness only exists outside of the hospital doors for a majority of the time. But once every so often, Project Sunshine, an international nonprofit organization, brightens their day.
It brings light to those children and their families and serves as a ‘sweet escape’ from the realities of their illnesses and the daunting hospital environment. Project Sunshine provides recreational, social, and educational programs to pediatric patients and their families.
St. John’s University’s Project Sunshine is one of hundreds of college chapters involved in the nonprofit organization. At St. John’s there are two aspects that make up Project Sunshine: direct service and volunteering on campus.
“On campus what we do is we have ‘Sending Sunshine Events’ and that is where we come together to create craft bags and we mail them to local hospitals,” explains Project Sunshine President, Katharina Lemmerz. The National Office distributes the craft bags to Project Sunshine’s international locations in Israel, Kenya, and some third-world countries.
“For Direct Service, we go to Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park and we volunteer there in the pediatrics department,” adds Lemmerz.
The chapter has a set schedule of going to the hospital on Thursday evenings. Depending on the holiday, Project Sunshine volunteers are able to send themed crafts to patients. “Whatever the holiday or season is we base our activities around that,” said Lemmerz.
Activities include reading (Book Buddies), nutrition and cooking (Sunshine Chefs), arts and crafts, Star for a Day and a variety of other programs for the children and their families. “Star for a Day is if the child has a big procedure coming up and has been in the hospital for a while, we will dedicate an entire day just around them,” said Katharina. When SJU Project Sunshine volunteers arrive, it allows the guardian of the patients to have an hour or two “off.” “We have the Caregiver Wellness program that is for the parents, siblings, grandparents, people who are off of work by their bedsides through everything they deserve a break too,” said Lemmerz.
Project Sunshine hosts a gala every year in the city. “It is actually pretty intense. We have celebrities like Miss America, are always there and a couple of our volunteers (attend),” Katharina explained. Even though the Project Sunshine gala occurs around the same time as finals, the SJU Project Sunshine volunteers do not let the timing rain on their parade. Volunteers still go to the gala and help with auctioning and seating, which assists in raising money for the charity.
Anyone can join the Project Sunshine chapter. “We are a charity organization, so we appreciate our volunteers,” Lemmerz beamed. To become a hospital volunteer, one must apply and be interviewed. This process is due to only ten volunteers being taken a year. Although there are a few hospital volunteers, students who are unable to attend or volunteer as frequently are still welcomed with open arms. There are approximately 350 general volunteers who are a part of the Project Sunshine organization.
Project Sunshine is the epitome of the notion that good things come in small packages. It is not about how grand the gesture, it is about how genuine and how it makes the person feel. Everyone, both the sick and the healthy, deserves a day in the sun.