In August of 1998, undergrad Joe Weilgus was visiting a friend of his in the hospital. As he strolled by the pediatric wing of the hospital, he noticed that many of the young patients were sitting alone in their hospital rooms, bored and cheerless, with nothing to entertain them. When Joe went home, he could not forget what he saw on his visit to the hospital. That’s when he hatched a plan. Later that week, Joe, dressed as a clown, spread cheer throughout the pediatric wing.
Joe’s upbeat energy lifted the spirits of many of the young patients, as well as distressed parents. As he sat and “clowned around” with many of the children, he realized that these kids could all use some companionship and support. Although being a kid with cancer was tough, a little company could make it more bearable. After seeing the effect he had on the kids, he recruited some of his classmates to help out. He wanted to be able to have local college kids volunteer to enliven the lives of pediatric patients. This sparked other colleges nearby to express their interest, and Joe’s own co-workers even pitching in to make a difference. (https://projectsunshine.org/who-we-are/)
This is how Project Sunshine was born.
Project Sunshine now has an official office in New York City, and even launched an international program in Mombasa, Kenya. You can find headquarters for Project Sunshine in China, Canada, Israel, and Kenya. With over 18,000 trained volunteers, Sunshine is able to help over 175,000 families every year.
So, how exactly does Project Sunshine help? By working with an array of social workers, nurses, child life specialists, and therapists, Sunshine is able to create a space where children can socialize and enjoy fun activities, which are both recreational as well as educational. Along with this, caregivers of hospitalized pediatric patients are very important to a child’s morale; their levels of stress and anxiety are large environmental factors that influence a child’s emotions day by day. By having the patients interact with one another for periods of time, caregivers are able to take breaks for their own needs, which may simply be a walk outside or some fresh air.
For many children, hospitals are an uncomfortable setting that they are not used to. By participating in Project Sunshine, patients are able to act like kids in a hospital context, which lowers stress and anxiety levels. Their mental, physical, and emotional well-being is much improved after interactions with others. They are also more willing to accept treatment when working with Project Sunshine. Another meaningful benefit of Project Sunshine is the impact on the healthcare workers in the pediatric wing. Sunshine brings in resources for many staff members during their visits, which helps the hospital feel supported. These resources, as well as the time that volunteers spend with kids, help nurses, doctors, and other medical staff better serve the children and their families.
Well, how do I get involved? Project Sunshine offers volunteer opportunities for corporate offices, college communities, general community chapters, and remote volunteers. There are lots of chapters all across the United States, and there are many in Indiana as well!
Project Sunshine partners with hospitals in Indiana located in cities such as Carmel, Indianapolis, Lafayette, Fort Wayne, and Evansville. If there is not a chapter anywhere near you live, then that is okay! There are many opportunities to do individual and group volunteer service, or you can create your own chapter!
Because of the COVID-19 virus, most chapters are not engaging physically in hospitals to see pediatric patients. However, there is the option of remote volunteer work. The remote option includes lots of choices that will help pediatric patients during this time. One of the options is a simple joke: post a video of yourself telling a kid-friendly joke and tag Project Sunshine, and the volunteers will collect them and show them to the children to put a smile on their face! There is also an option for volunteers to sew masks for patients and healthcare workers in fun patterns that kids would like! Similarly, there is another option for all the tailors, as Sunshine also does called Surgi dolls, which are plain, body-shaped dolls that patients decorate and can find comfort in. These dolls can be used by doctors to describe what will happen during an upcoming procedure. The dolls can decrease anxiety in a patient over their treatment and make for good friends. There is another option that Sunshine does that is putting together their signature activity kits, which include items like coloring activities and other exercises that encourage kids to be inventive and to have fun.
Project Sunshine is working very hard year by year to establish a connection to community and service, helping pediatric patients who face medical challenges. They recognize that although the whole world is being affected by hard circumstances right now, we can all find a way to help. If you cannot find a way to volunteer, there are always donation options available. Visit the Project Sunshine website to find out more about what they do and how you can get involved today!