By Aaron Williams
While most Americans are fortunate enough to enjoy a relatively healthy childhood, others are not so lucky. Across the country, children who suffer from medical illnesses are confined to lengthy hospital stays for treatment and are deprived of a normal childhood in the process.
The picture painted may be dark, but there is a small ray of hope in the form of a national philanthropic organization known as Project: SUNSHINE.
Last year, a chapter of Project: SUNSHINE was established here at the University of Louisville through contact with Bonner Leaders program coordinator Kim Shaver and Bonner Leaders Brian Wessel and Nick de Guzman, who are both senior biology majors.
Since last year, the U of L chapter of Project: SUNSHINE has been working with kids at Kosair Children’s Hospital several times a month in differing rotations of members. The group’s focus is currently on the patients, who they play games and do arts and crafts with frequently.
The chapter also incorporates Star for a Day, a program that selects one specific patient and crowns them the “star” for one day as a way of giving a child special attention and letting them know that they are important.
“[Nick and I] are both biology majors and we’re both pre-med,” said Wessel, “You could go down [to Kosair] and volunteer, but what was unique about Project: SUNSHINE was that when you volunteered with them, you work with the patients. You work with the kids, hang out with the kids.”
As part of Bonner Leaders volunteering program, Wessel and de Guzman were placed at different service sites in August and September of their junior year. However, neither felt their current service sites were quite the best match for them.
“For me, I wanted to address something more health related,” said de Guzman. “I wanted to do something new. [Project: SUNSHINE] was an idea brought to me and Brian from our Bonner Leader supervisor, Kim Shaver.”
As the Service-Learning Coordinator at the Office of Civic Engagement, Leadership and Service, Shaver explained that she was contacted by Project: SUNSHINE to start a chapter here at U of L.
The idea was supported by a local pediatrician who believed it was important to have a Project: SUNSHINE chapter in Louisville. Shaver then brought the idea to Wessel and de Guzman.
“I think it’s something very special,” said Shaver. “I don’t think [Wessel and de Guzman] knew they had it in them to do this. They didn’t quite know what they were getting themselves into. They were just open to the possibility of it. I think they were surprised that the chapter actually came to Louisville.”
Wessel and de Guzman, along with founding members of the U of L chapter – ten in total – chose to collaborate and work with children at Kosair Children’s Hospital. Wessel saw Project: SUNSHINE as a special and unique opportunity.
Wessel and de Guzman’s service has made an impact. For their work with Project: SUNSHINE, they received honors for Bonner Leader Project of the Year at the 2010 U of L Student Life Awards. That same work prompted collaborations with student groups like Freshman LEAD, a leadership development organization for freshmen, and GEMS, a program that guarantees students entrance to medical school. Working with these other groups has helped Project: SUNSHINE grow.
“We’ve expanded greatly,” said de Guzman. “When we first started, it was ten members strong and a lot of those members were in our class so they were graduating. And by working in collaboration with these other groups, we’ve gotten a lot of younger students coming in.”
Though their efforts seem to have just begun, Wessel and de Guzman will soon be stepping down as heads of their chapter of Project: SUNSHINE. They will be passing the responsibility onto two other Bonner Leaders, Kelly Beglin and Caitlin Medley.
Medley is excited to be able to continue what Wessel and de Guzman began.
“I don’t know how they found out about Project SUNSHINE, but I feel like it’s something that the university lacked,” said Medley, a junior biology major. “It’s fun. It’s rewarding. I mean, I’m really excited about it. I’m so glad they did it. I’m glad I get to be a part of it, and be a leader and get to plan things.”
De Guzman said he will be sad to let go of the project, but that once the transition is complete, it will be in good hands.
“It’s kind of hard to step down,” said de Guzman, “Just because, you know, we started the chapter. Handing it over is tough. But the people we’re handing it over to, we hope that we’ve trained them well enough to keep this chapter going.”
Wessel echoed this sentiment and said he hopes Project: SUNSHINE continues to expand long after he graduates.
“I think our main goal is just to keep it alive and keep it growing,” said Wessel.
Wessel and de Guzman’s supervisor, Shaver, knows it will be hard for them to let it go too, but expressed approval of what the duo had accomplished.
“I think that they really took the call seriously and were able to create this chapter, and I hope that it’s sustainable and it stays after they leave, because they really worked hard,” said Shaver.
Wessel summed up the importance of continuing Project: SUNSHINE with his reflection on the most rewarding aspect of the work.
“It’s just knowing that you’re making a difference in a kid’s life, especially a kid that doesn’t get to have the life of a normal eight or nine year old,” said Wessel. “A lot of the kids down there have been in the hospital for weeks or they’re always in and out of the hospital so they don’t get to have that average eight or nine year old childhood experience. So when you go to the hospital, work with these kids, make a difference and try to help them forget that they’re even in the hospital. That’s important.”