Former volunteer brings siblings together at the Just for Kids Sibling Park

April 7 to 13 marks National Volunteer Week in Canada

Kaitlen Gattuso began volunteering at the Montreal Children’s Hospital in 2013 in the Hematology-Oncology Department. From the moment she set foot on the unit, she says, it was an eye-opening experience. I would come back from my visits recharged and energized from interacting with patients and their families. It gave me perspective and got me thinking about my future.

Her future, it turns out, would be linked with the Children’s for years to come. Since July 2017, Kaitlen has embarked on a new role as one of 4 coordinators of the Just for Kids (JFK) Sibling Park at the Montreal Children’s Hospital -- a space available to siblings of patients hospitalized in the Neonatal or Pediatric Intensive Care Units. Children under the age of 13 are not allowed to visit these units, presenting a challenge to families who wish to spend the day with their sick child, but also want their other children nearby. The JFK Sibling Park is a unique space for these brothers and sisters. It allows them to visit  the hospital with their parents, all while building happy memories in a safe and educational setting. “I like to call it an alternative daycare,” says Kaitlen, “because we don’t have the same structure per se, but we have a curriculum that is flexible to cater to siblings and their needs.”

Supported by donors and volunteers alike

Supported by the Just for Kids Foundation, the JFK Sibling Park is open Friday evenings, as well as Saturdays and Sundays to support families with a child needing long-term hospitalization. It’s staffed by a team of 16 volunteers throughout the weekend to respond to ever-fluctuating needs. “Some days we can have one or two siblings, but other days, we can have an influx of up to 10 children,” says Kaitlen. “I really rely on our team of volunteers to help conduct our activities, provide supervision and enjoy the day with these special groups. Each of them really enjoy coming back because often, the same siblings return week after week, forging really wonderful bonds between volunteers and siblings.”

Facilitating expression and participation

In order to best meet the needs of this unique population, Kaitlen and her team of volunteers work diligently to find ways to help children express complicated emotions and to deal with the stress of what is happening around them in the hospital. “Many of these children arrive with different conceptions or ways of reacting to the early arrival of a sibling who is sick and requires intensive hospital care,” says Kaitlen, “we follow the lead of the child and try to introduce activities to help them feel like they are contributing to the care of their sick brother or sister by making a baby banner, or recording a voice message for the baby. This makes it easier for them to feel like their sibling is part of the family and that they are helping in some way.”

Forming life-changing bonds

In Noah’s case, the three-and-a-half year-old’s experience with Kaitlen and countless volunteers at the JFK Sibling Park was truly life-changing for the whole family. His mother, Valerie Harvey, gave birth at 35 weeks in September 2017 to his brother Logan, who required a 16-month long hospitalization in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) due to a malformation of his esophagus. While Noah attended daycare during the week, Valerie says she felt an additional stress when the weekend would come knowing she would need to arrange care for Noah if she wanted to visit her new baby in the hospital.

When staff members introduced her to the idea of the JFK Sibling Park, she decided to try it out immediately. “At first, it seemed like a lot to have him in daycare all week and bring him to the hospital to get cared for too,” says Valerie. “But it quickly became part of our routine and Noah absolutely loved it. We were able to eat lunch together every day, and he was able to be with me in the same building, taking a huge weight off my shoulders. I knew he was in excellent hands.”

Over the 16 months his brother was hospitalized, Noah forged incredibly strong bonds with the volunteers and with Kaitlen. “Coming to the hospital every weekend and participating in the amazing activities they facilitated really allowed Noah to feel like he was part of the whole experience,” says Valerie, who laughs that he loved the experience so much, he much preferred going to the JFK Sibling Park to his regular daycare. What’s more, the Park allowed Noah and his parents to connect with other siblings and families going through a similar experience. The friendships they created were instrumental to their journey, says Valerie, and she still connects with other families today, almost three months after Logan was discharged home.

“I don’t have the words to express how grateful I am,” says Valerie about her experience. “For 16 months we couldn’t go on vacation, we couldn’t go on day trips, we couldn’t bring Noah on outings. He was only able to physically see his brother a total of six or seven times. It was really hard. And he really wanted to be with us. This program allowed us to keep our family together, and I can’t think of anything more valuable.