I attended an event this morning that reminded me again why I love to support the Cape Town Rifles (Dukes), a Defence Reserve regiment in the Western Cape, and worthwhile causes like the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Rondebosch, Cape Town.
A couple of weeks ago, the Dukes appealed for donations of toys and games, which were to be handed over to the Hospital at a small ceremony to commemorate Youth Day on 16 June 2014. The initiative is part of the Regiment’s ongoing social responsibility programme.
On the morning of Wednesday, 18 June 2014, five boxes of soft toys, pretty dolls, stimulating board games and card games, colourful puzzles and learning games, and helpful items of clothing, all donated by members and friends of the Regiment and the South African Legion, were handed over to David Stephens, the Executive Director of the Friends of the Children’s Hospital Association (FOCHA), and his assistant Janine Heuvel. The Dukes were represented by Lieutenant Colonel Francois Marais (the new Officer Commanding), Captain John Manning, Captain John Dorrington, WO1 Daantjie Prins (the Regimental Sergeant Major), and WO2 Mike Cairns.
At the meeting, both David and Janine spoke passionately about their work at the Hospital, raising some of the challenges they face.
The Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital is currently the only specialist paediatric hospital in Southern Africa, successfully treating very complex life-threatening and life-limiting conditions among children in this region and beyond. It manages around 250,000 patient visits each year with up to 400 patients at any one time, from premature babies and toddlers to young teenagers, up to the age of 13 years. The majority of these patients come from poor and marginalised communities. They are referred to the Hospital from the Western Cape, the rest of South Africa, the African continent, and even on rare occasions from other parts of the world.
The Hospital furthermore provides training for new paediatric specialists, offers postgraduate specialist paediatric medical and surgical training, conducts medical research into childhood diseases, and runs outreach programmes in the communities.
The military has always had close links with the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, as you might glean from its rather long name.
The Hospital was founded in 1956, eleven years after the end of the Second World War, when a group of South African servicemen and veterans, returning home from the War, decided to create a place of healing in honour of their fallen comrades. They willingly donated part of their salary to a special fund, and in close collaboration with the Red Cross Society and the Cape Provincial Government, used this money to establish the Hospital. It was decided that it would focus on paediatric services, as children were the most vulnerable group in society and they had been innocent victims of the war.
In his autobiography, Crossing the Borders of Power – The Memoirs of Colin Eglin, Mr Eglin, who had always been closely involved with the Hospital right up to his death in December 2013, mentioned the discussions that took place among the South African soldiers in 1945, whilst in Italy, waiting to be repatriated to South Africa. He said:
“The dominant view was that there should be a memorial, but that this should be a ‘living’ one that served the community, not merely a monumental structure. The servicemen, in overwhelming numbers, volunteered to donate two days’ pay towards what was to become the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.”
In acknowledgement of this close association with the military, a Remembrance Day service is held at the Hospital in November each year, to pay tribute to the fallen heroes of wars and conflicts around the world since World War I. I attended and wrote about the solemn and beautiful 2011 Remembrance Day service at the Hospital.
A board inside the hospital’s main entrance lists some of the organisations and individuals who have made significant donations to the Hospital. I was intrigued to see the “Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Rifles (in memory of fallen comrades)” listed on that large board, as that is the original name of the regiment that is now known as the Cape Town Rifles (Dukes).
Given this historic link between the military and the Hospital, it was thus fitting that Lt Col Francois Marais reiterated the Dukes’ willingness to assist the Hospital in various ways over the long term. For the past few years, the regiment has participated in the annual Remembrance Day Service held at the hospital and they will be increasing their involvement in this parade from this year. They will also be hosting a soup kitchen at the hospital on Mandela Day (18 July 2014) to provide lunch for parents who are visiting their children in hospital.
In these days of budget cuts, limited resources and insufficient funding, the Hospital welcomes assistance from all sectors of society.
The Children’s Hospital Trust is the independent fundraising arm of the Hospital. Founded in 1994 when the Hospital was threatened with closure due to a lack of funds, the Trust celebrates its 20th birthday this year. The funds they raise are used for large capital projects, such as building state-of-the-art facilities (I previously wrote about the ground-breaking ceremony for a new centre to tackle childhood infectious diseases in 2012), training medical professionals, obtaining vital specialist equipment and developing new medical treatments.
The Trust has an excellent publicity and communications department, which keeps their website and social media up-to-date; they also regularly organise and host events for sponsors, donors, participants in the legacy programme, and other supporters. For instance, I previously attended a delightful ‘Tea with the Premier Helen Zille’.
Today, I learned of the existence of the Friends of the Children’s Hospital Association (FOCHA), who support the day-to-day operations of the Hospital.
It is largely thanks to the generosity of corporate and individual donors, volunteers and supporters through the years, that FOCHA has been able to implement various programmes and support groups (family support, volunteer, arts and crafts, life skills, counselling). These help not only the children but, just as importantly, their parents, families and caregivers too.
Their Volunteer Programme, for instance, coordinates the activities of about 100 volunteers, who read to and play with the youngsters in the wards and clinics; not only do these interactions offer a welcome distraction from the pain, anxiety and distress of being sick and confined to hospital, but it creates a happy, loving and supportive atmosphere in what could otherwise be a depressing and frightening clinical environment.
Depending on need, which is assessed by social workers, families also receive support in the form of meals at the hospital, food, clothing and toiletry parcels, even assistance with transportation. The Mustadafin Foundation, a non-profit organisation in the Western and Eastern Cape, has partnered with FOCHA in the Meal-A-Day Programme, which provides nutritional meals to over 100 parents a day – an absolute godsend for parents whose children are confined to hospital for extended periods. After all, it is not only the children who need to eat, and to receive medical care and physical and emotional support – but so too do their parents and caregivers.
In addition, families are encouraged to attend support groups (for example, HIV/AIDS, hygiene education, infectious disease education, and various condition-specific support groups). This is particularly important when children have long-term or chronic illnesses or conditions that have to be managed appropriately.
In addition to financial donations and testamentary bequests, FOCHA also welcomes donations of items that they can give directly to children and their families, such as new or used toys, books and magazines, clothing, blankets, household goods, toiletries and hygiene products. Items for sale can also be donated to the Friends Fundraising Shop, to be sold through them.
Janine gave us a brief tour of some of the facilities. For instance, all the donations received by the Hospital are sorted in a large room, subdivided by tall shelves. I was impressed by how organised it all was.
The nearby Toy Room was my favourite place! When toys, games, books and magazines are donated, they are sorted into items that can be handed out to individual children (such as teddy bears and soft toys, which they can snuggle with), and items that can be used more generally, for instance by the play volunteers, the occupational therapists, the physiotherapists, or the social workers. Educational toys, puzzles, games and books are always popular. Stacks of magazines are made available to the parents to read when they have to spend long hours waiting, or the children can use them for particular educational projects.
Janine explained that the colourful tunics hanging on a hook are worn by the volunteers, to identify them as such, when they go into the wards to play with or read to the children. The volunteers take a selection of items from the Toy Room up to the wards, and must return them afterwards, to be sanitised – to prevent cross-contamination, as these are ill children, after all – before they are returned to the shelves.
Although I had visited the Hospital a few times, I hadn’t ever been inside it. This morning, Janine took us up to Ward D1, the Specialist Surgical Ward to which children are admitted both before and after their surgical procedures, to see what it was like. When we emerged from the lift, the first thing we saw was a bright and colourful mural depicting a couple of soccer players, in memory of the FIFA World Cup 2010 in South Africa. Janine said that there were several such murals dotted around the hospital; they really create a cheerful and uplifting energy.
We were buzzed into Ward D1, and had our hands squirted with sanitizer, before walking around the Ward with Janine, to hand out a couple of toys to the children and to meet the dedicated nursing staff. The ward was subdivided into a series of smaller rooms, each with a couple of beds surrounded by medical equipment. Cheery-looking volunteers were playing with the toddlers and young children; a mother was slowly walking up and down, her little one in her arms, soothingly stroking its back. A little boy came out to look curiously at the soldiers in their camouflage uniforms, and another little one confidently stood to attention and saluted! He giggled in delight when the salute was returned.
This was not the hospital environment I had anticipated; instead of entering a cold, clinical, intimidating place, with harassed nurses dashing hither and thither, and stern-looking personnel manning the counters, we were welcomed by friendly smiles, a warm and caring atmosphere, and the delightful sound of children’s laughter.
And yet, it is still a hospital; it’s a place where desperately ill, injured or traumatised children are brought by their anxious parents or caregivers, in the hope that their pain can be eased and that they will be healed. For some, unfortunately, like the patients in the oncology or cancer wards, this may not be the case. But regardless of their medical condition, they can be comforted by the fact that the little ones will receive the best possible care – and be showered with love and attention by both staff and volunteers. And that, no doubt, accelerates their healing and recovery.
It’s a wonderful place – do support it!