Volunteering at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital

Partner with this renowned healthcare house’s new mobile library project to enrich an ill child’s life

For many of the tiny souls occupying beds at the Cape Town-based Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, the largest paediatric healthcare institution in Africa, the terrifying beeps, painful prods and foul medication that come with the territory are not just temporary annoyances; they’re a lifestyle. These lovable little ones, plagued with ailments like kidney failure, cancer, congenital heart disease and severe burns, spend anywhere from two months to two years behind the walls of this facility, often worlds away from home and without family or any familiar faces.

In essence, while healthy children frolic, grow and learn, the kids at Red Cross lose a chunk of their childhoods to their conditions. And it is precisely this that The Friends of the Children’s Hospital Association (FOCHA), a non-profit organisation that provides social, psychological and material support to the young patients and their parents, aims to give back to them. Depending heavily on the good work of volunteers, the unit aspires to give the sick tots and teens as ‘normal’ and positive an experience as possible, recognising that because they stay so long, for the sake of their development and wellbeing, it is critical to address more than just their physical needs.

“The medical care is not enough,” asserts an animated David Stephens, the NGO’s executive director. “A child is an emotional, spiritual and affectionate being, and if you don’t address these areas too, they won’t heal.”

Though the venture offers a wide range of services, including a very successful play programme that delights kiddies with fun time and toys, FOCHA’s most recent and exciting project is the expansion of the hospital’s single book trolley into a fully fledged mobile library. Set to launch before International Literacy Day on 8 September 2013, this initiative will introduce a portable, lockable bookcase piled high with age-appropriate fantasy stories into every ward, giving all 290 of the admitted children easy access to the wonderful world of fiction. Just like the play scheme, which is founded on volunteerism, the concept calls on members of the general public to offer up their time, both to help with issuing and returning tales, and, most importantly, to read with the love-starved little ones.

While a very rewarding experience for helpers who get to bond with the inspiring, courageous mini humans, most notably, the project has the capacity to change the lives of its beneficiaries. First and foremost, it’s central to their intellectual growth. Because many of the patients are five-, six- and seven-year-olds who should be in class building vocabularies and learning to read and write, giving them the chance to continue that education on some level within the hospital helps to ensure that when they’re finally discharged, they can still compete with their peers. And in a South Africa where the national average performance in literacy is only 52% among healthy Grade 3 children (as reported by the Department of Education in December 2012), it becomes quite clear why it’s even more important to give Red Cross residents, who are already on the back foot, a chance to develop this essential life skill.

But above and beyond just stimulating the brain, books also boost confidence and self-esteem, they impart moral values, they teach children how to dream and they offer young minds the opportunity to escape into an alternative universe where everything is peachy and anything is possible – an option that’s so important and empowering for kids who feel shackled by their disease.

“If children use the library in their leisure time, it takes their minds off the situation, it helps them visit worlds they’ve never been to before, and if we choose the books well, we can give them hope for the future,” says David, who, for many years, was a school teacher by profession, and firmly believes that reading can determine what type of adult a youngster becomes. “No matter what their physical restraints, when somebody reads to them, well, they can fly.”

More than anything, this and FOCHA’s other undertakings, like the play project and  the child-run radio programme that the body hopes to launch soon, not only make a lot of headway in normalising an otherwise grim and frightening setting, but they actually work to completely redefine the traditional hospital space. The NGO’s committed team have helped to demonstrate that a medical institution doesn’t have to be a cold, clinical place associated with sickness and death; it can be a positive learning environment filled with life, it can be a home, because for many chronically ill kids, that’s exactly what it is.

And when laughter and fun and education are such standard parts of the healthcare facility, children start to see that this is not necessarily a place they’re coming to die; it’s a place they’re coming to heal, to pass through and to hopefully put behind them. The miracle is, this shift in thinking alone might actually aid recovery. Indeed, it’s widely accepted in the public health literature that a positive environment and upbeat mindset can improve patient outcomes. So, a happy hospital is not just a luxury, it’s a potential cure in itself.

Needless to say then, the nation’s other healthcare institutions could certainly benefit from adopting similar models and perceptions, and because Red Cross is looked to as such a shining example in the field, perhaps, very soon, they will. For now though, it’s comforting just to know that, thanks to FOCHA and numerous passionate volunteers, many of Cape Town and beyond’s sweet, little sick kids are still smiling.

How can you partner with The Friends of the Children’s Hospital Association?

Those looking to get involved with FOCHA’s new mobile library project can do so in the following ways:

  • Donate children’s books, old or new, that are still in good condition. Red Cross patients range in age from newborns to 14-year-olds, so FOCHA requires stories appropriate for a variety of reading levels.
  • Donate the mobile units used to store books in the wards.
  • Volunteer your time to read with the little ones in morning, afternoon or evening (ideal for those who work) sessions. Anyone is welcome to apply to become a reading volunteer; though, they especially need professional teachers. Interested parties will be screened and receive orientation.
  • Make a cash donation. FOCHA will direct money received towards developing and improving the mobile library.

Aside from contributing to the reading project, there are many other ways to support the NGO’s various activities. These include:

  • Volunteer to be part of the venture’s play programme. Helpers can enjoy fun time with the kids between 9am and 12pm or between 2pm and 4pm on weekdays, or from 2pm to 4pm on Sundays. FOCHA supplies toys that volunteers can pack onto trolleys to take to the wards.
  • Donate appropriate toys for the play programme.
  • Donate old clothes (they must still be in good condition) for the patients’ parents; many moms and dads arrive at the hospital from far with only the garments on their back and need other clothing for their stay.
  • Donate toiletries, underwear, nappies and hygiene products for the admitted kids and their parents.

Contacting The Friends of the Children’s Hospital Association: To make a donation or enquire about volunteering, contact FOCHA on +27 (0) 21 658 5243 or email them at fochaprogs@iafrica.com.

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See four top local music acts and help raise funds for sick babies at the Every Baby Counts Benefit Concert.

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Looking for other inspiring Mother City initiatives to support? We’ve put together an overview of places to volunteer in Cape Town.

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