Dream come true
UF students formed the Dream Team to help patients in the pediatric cardiac intensive care unit
By Michelle Champalanne
Any day of the week, tucked within the pediatric cardiac unit on the 10th floor of UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital, you’ll find a giggling 6-year-old meticulously playing Mario Kart with some of his new friends; today that’s UF students Alex Breslin and Liz Kleinfeld.
Attached to Malik Jackson’s torso dangles a Berlin Heart, a small, orb-shaped device that mechanically assists his heart in pumping blood. He’s been here waiting for a transplant for more than six months. His family can’t visit every day, so that’s where Dream Team steps in.
“Pound it,” Breslin said while holding up his closed fist. It’s clear that Malik treats the daily volunteers as older siblings, when his 8-year-old brother can’t be around. Malik eagerly smiled and bumped fists back.
Dream Team consists of over 80 bubbly volunteers who work every day of the week to make these kids smile.
Breslin, a fourth-year biology student, co-founder and president of Dream Team, devised the kid-focused student volunteer group two summers ago after volunteering at UF Health for a year. He came to Liz Kleinfeld, a fourth-year accounting master’s student, with the idea, and together they created Dream Team a short, busy six months later.
Breslin and Kleinfeld worked closely with Child Life Services director Chris Brown to find an ideal match for their group at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital.
The pediatric cardiac intensive care unit, which opened in March 2014, already needed volunteers. The unit’s patients often need an extra dose of attention from cheerful volunteers because they typically spend many months in the hospital, away from home and, sometimes, away from family, Brown said.
For these patients, their hospital rooms become their homes, overflowing with SpongeBob SquarePants pillows and birthday posters, much like Malik’s room.
“We serve as a friend for those children,” Breslin said. “We’re here as a source of consistency in their lives.”
The patients and their families place a lot of value on having dedicated volunteers, Brown said.
“They’re always willing to help out. They’re a really unique group,” Brown said. “Dream Team has definitely demonstrated a level of passion and commitment to this project that is rare.”
In addition to daily visits, the group hosts a variety of kid-suited activities, ranging from movie nights to nail painting mornings. Although they’re organized by volunteers, each event is adaptable, often directed by what the patients want to do. Dream Team’s there to serve the kids, so an organized afternoon for origami can easily transform into a paper-plane contest, Breslin said.
“It’s more empowering for them to make the decisions,” Kleinfeld said.
In November, the group began Capes for Kids. The group sized and cut almost 200 felt capes. Throughout the following months, lucky patients would be awarded a cape of their own, allowing them to be a superhero for the day.
“They actually become their own personal hero,” Breslin said.
Through choosing the decorations for their capes, the kids exercise their independence, creativity and control, three traits often overlooked in hospital settings. Their perfectly tailored and bold-lettered capes give them that extra boost of superpowers already embedded in their resilient spirits.
Brown agreed. The capes are great because they allow “the kids to be superheroes, which they certainly are; they are superheroes.”
Quickly, the group reached more than 2,000 volunteer hours with just 60 volunteers. Now, they’ve expanded after having 250 applicants this semester. They set a goal of reaching 1,500 volunteer hours each semester.
“There were children here that just didn’t have volunteers when Alex would come. We thought that we could fill a void and make a difference,” Kleinfeld said. “It’s been a dream come true.”