Volunteers doing “magical” work for sick children in hospital

By Joyce Rubotham  @seoighee

A children’s hospital charity providing play sessions for sick kids is continuing to do “magical” work thanks to a group of volunteers from all backgrounds sacrificing their time to put a smile on the faces of the young.

Annemarie Sharkey, a primary school teacher based in Dublin, has been an active member of and volunteer with Children In Hospital Ireland (CHI) for six years.

“Over the years I have met so many children who are nothing short of inspiring. They have helped me gain a sense of perspective and to realise how lucky I am,” she said.

Annemarie, like so many volunteers is upbeat about the work she does with CHI.

“People sometimes think that it must be sad or depressing to spend time with children who are ill but nothing could be further from the truth. We volunteers get to facilitate the fun times by providing opportunities for what comes most naturally to children, play.”

Former senator and chairperson of CHI, Jillian van Turnhout described the volunteers, the ordinary and caring contributors, to the charity, as the “backbone of the organisation.”

And it’s true – the volunteers are fighting the good fight when this duty is not incumbent on them.  They live busy lives and are often in demanding careers with families of their own, yet still they find the time to help so many children, who are often at their lowest ebb.

Luke O’Neill, a member of the Defence Forces, has been volunteering at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin, for three years.  He said:   “The hospital is magical and heartbreaking all at the same time.”

For Luke, Crumlin is a very special place because it is filled with “smiles and cries.”  “There is no other charity I would volunteer for,” he said.  “People ask how and why we do it, I just say for the look on the kids’ faces. Play does work as a healer, I am a firm believer in that and I love that I can provide play for our little heroes.”

Annemarie Sharkey and Luke O'Neill at the CHI information desk in Crumlin hospital
Annemarie Sharkey and Luke O’Neill at the CHI information desk in Crumlin hospital

Mary O’Connor, former CEO and long-time volunteer recalled when the first volunteers entered Crumlin Hospital in Dublin in 1970, where they were “treated with suspicion.”

They fought to prevent parents being banished from the bedsides of sick children. They campaigned for the rights of sick children to play.

Some enlightened doctors and staff at the hospitals supported the work of the women volunteers and the organisation took off from there.

Today, forty-six years later, CHI operates in twelve hospitals around the country with over 400 volunteers. This number is set to increase as interest in the organisation is growing.

The trademark red t-shirt the volunteers wear is welcomed by children, parents and staff at all the hospitals they attend.

Members attending the annual AGM at the weekend, were treated to a workshop on storytelling and its importance to children, both sick and healthy.

The workshop was run by “The Book Doctor” Olivia Lally from Children’s books Ireland.

Instructions were provided on how to entertain children in hospital with surgical glove puppets, an item nearby and easily utilised to help bring the child in to a temporary fantasy land away from the worries of being sick, even if just for a short while.

It is clear that volunteers at CHI give so much time, energy and kindness to help sick children. Most volunteers however will say that the work is so rewarding that they get back much more then they give.

Like many charities, the recession hit hard and CHI experienced a few difficult years – but the charity operates with low overheads, according to organisers. With only three full-time staff members, costs are also kept to a minimum.

CHI recruits and trains volunteers who are placed in hospitals where they provide play sessions for sick children. Volunteers are also present in the waiting rooms of out-patient departments and emergency rooms playing with children who wait to see doctors.

Putting a smile on sick children's faces, even with such a simple thing as a surgical glove puppet
Putting a smile on sick children’s faces, even with such a simple thing as a surgical glove puppet

Advocating on behalf of sick children is also part of the core mission of CHI. The charity is working with the development team for the new children’s hospital to input on the needs of sick children and their families.

Patricia Hemmens, from north country Dublin, led a group of Mothers who founded CHI in 1969. At that time, children were subjected to the most abysmal conditions. Parents were not allowed to visit and children were not allowed to play or even leave their beds.

So much has changed for children in Irish hospitals. CHI has played a huge, yet under-reported role in the changes that have greatly improved the experience of a hospitalised child in Ireland.

A large group of volunteers from all over Ireland gathered for the AGM on Saturday. The room at Crumlin Hospital was filled with energy and optimism as chairwoman Jillian Van Turnhout opened proceedings and welcomed everyone.

CEO Orla Kennedy outlined the amazing work done throughout the year, with volunteer numbers increasing and new board members recruited.



Dr Joyce Rubotham (pHd) is a director of and volunteer with Children In Hospital Ireland.

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