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Project Sunshine outreach work focuses on children in hospitals

When Valeriya Gershteyn visited St. Peter’s University Hospital last fall, she met a young patient who was preparing to undergo a session of chemotherapy on her birthday. But the girl did not seem sad about her situation. Rather, she was was excited to eat ice cream after treatment.

Gershteyn, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, visited the hospital as a volunteer for Project Sunshine, a national non-profit organization that brings free programming to children and families facing medical challenges in the hospital.

The group has had a presence at Rutgers since 2007. It currently has 300 students involved, with 75 to 100 active volunteers, said Gershteyn, the public relations chair for the organization.

Since meeting that little girl, Gershteyn has changed the direction of her career goal. Instead of conducting medical research, she now wants to work one-on-one with patients.

“Talking to a patient can make such a huge difference in their psychological stay there,” she said. “[Project Sunshine] gave me a different outlook, a different spin in my head, on what it means to be part of the medical system.”

Every other week, five volunteers venture out to different medical centers to engage in arts and crafts programs — the most popular activity Project Sunshine offers — with children in the facilities, said Emilie Transue, the organization’s chapter leader.

Project Sunshine stands apart from other organizations that work with medical facilities because it focuses attention on both children and their families, said Transue, a School of Arts and Sciences senior.

“Having a child in the hospital is not an easy, stress-free time in their life,” she said.

An event that stands out in her memory is throwing an “Unbirthday Party,” which celebrated every child, because not every patient can celebrate their birthday in the hospital.

“It’s important to help provide for the child’s personal development because when they’re in the hospital, they’re getting their treatment for their illness, but they don’t get that chance to be a kid, to be a family … and really get a chance to be themselves,” Transue said.

Coincidentally, a patient had her birthday on the day of the “Unbirthday Party.” The girl was thrilled to receive extra attention and celebrate with other children, Transue said.

“We brought some activities for the kids to do and some decorations and the hospital brought stuff for them to do too,” she said. “It was such a good time.”

Although a large portion of Project Sunshine’s outreach work involves working with young children, the project also has programs for teenagers in the hospital, said Mariko Sugimori, senior program coordinator for Project Sunshine.

Sugimori’s responsibilities include overseeing chapter leaders like Transue along with community and corporate volunteers.

Currently, 45 collegiate chapters of Project Sunshine exist in the United States, with 15,000 volunteers globally, Sugimori said.

“I really do enjoy working with the university students, just because being able to see them get excited and energized and have a really positive experience is really powerful,” she said.

The project encourages college students to work with teenagers because they can feel a sense of companionship with the volunteers, Sugimori said. Events tailored for adolescents include movie nights and Super Bowl-themed gatherings.

Project Sunshine offers opportunities for everyone to get involved without necessarily having to go to the hospital, Transue said.

“We work with other organizations to do community service —The Big Chill and Special Friends Day — and Project Sunshine has a really interesting program called Sending Sunshine, where you can … make care package items like cards for other kids, craft kits … [and] surgery dolls,” she said.

Surgery dolls are used to show children what operations will do to their bodies. The children then decorate the dolls, Transue said.

From participating in arts and crafts with the children to making care, Project Sunshine is all about hands-on activities with incredible people, she said.

Gershteyn said her experiences show that the seemingly mundane can make make for the best memories.

“What a small action on my part can do to a child made them so happy,” she said. “It’s magnificent.”

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