The magic of the Child Life Program
When you walk into a room filled with smiles, laughter, toys, games, and an over-all atmosphere of fun, it’s easy to forget you’re in a hospital.
That is exactly the goal of the Child Life Program at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital. Child Life offers patients support through its programming, including a fall visit from Olympic gold medalist Jamie Gray. Originally from nearby Lebanon, Pa., Gray was inspired to visit Hershey by the young patients she met at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Baton Rouge, La.
Much to the delight of the Hershey children and their families, Gray recently participated in their weekly BINGO game, spending time with families and answering questions about the Olympics. Sharing her gold medal in 50-meter rifle three position, she didn’t even mind when one little friend got chocolate from his hands on it.
Gray was touched by the children’s resiliency, especially after watching her mother, Karen Beyerle, battle and defeat breast cancer.
“I think it’s amazing to see how happy they are going through so much adversity,” she said. “I think they’re inspiring, honestly.”
It isn’t hard to see the difference Child Life makes with while watching 8 year-old Izaiah Robinson from Boalsburg, Pa., nearly running to the prize table, with a huge smile across his face.
His mother, Shanika, said that Izaiah is a frequent visitor to the hospital and that they are grateful to have the activities available.
“I love it for the kids,” Robinson said. “It’s something for them to do. Bingo is his favorite. He’s a pro at this.”
Izaiah said it was “cool” to meet someone who won a medal, and he got his picture taken as he and his mother waited to hear if he could go home.
According to Ashley Kane, program manager, special guests like Gray bring out a bright side of being in the hospital.
“If they weren’t here, many kids would not have gotten to meet an Olympic gold medalist,” Kane said. “They are going through a difficult time, trying to get better and get out of the hospital and our special visitors bring in something extra special. It gives them the motivation to get out of bed.”
The Child Life Program provides psychological, social, emotional and developmental support for patients and families predominantly through play.
“Play is the work of a child,” Kane said. Through play, staff helps kids and their families understand what’s happening in the hospital and in their bodies. Their job is to do anything they can to make the hospital environment easier, less frightening, more child friendly and allow children to be children while in the hospital.
While financial support comes from the Children’s Miracle Network and the Four Diamonds Fund, Child Life also has been well supported by donations from local organizations that regularly provide toys, books and other items needed for their play areas and programs.
“Everyone seems to feel strongly about helping the kids in the children’s hospital,” Kane said. “The community helps to fill any funding gaps we have.”
In addition to donations from church and scout groups, the program has received support and visits from the Hershey Bears, Harrisburg Senators, local police and fire departments, Chocolate World and many more who all make the days a little bit easier for children in the hospital.
Besides daily activities and special visitors, Child Life offers pre-op tours, coping assistance, teachers to keep up with schoolwork, pet therapy, monthly parent meals to facilitate parent-to-parent support, classroom visits to help the children understand what is happening to their classmate, and more.
And all of this supportive activity will be able to grow in scope now, as Child Life moved into its new home—the 263,000-square-foot, five-story (plus one below ground) freestanding Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital—this week.
In addition to more playrooms and another teen lounge for Child Life, the freestanding Children’s Hospital has a new sibling play center, a family resource center, a Ronald McDonald House room-to-room cart for families, and a new performance stage for special events that can be broadcast via closed-circuit television to patient rooms.
The new building’s opening also creates opportunity for community members to support the program and hospital in another way: about 100 new volunteers will be needed to maintain and grow Child Life and other programs designed to support a model of care that focuses on the comprehensive needs of pediatric patients and their families.
For more information on Child Life’s programs, how to donate or volunteer, visit pennstatehershey.org/web/childlife/home.