Over winter long weekend, a group of 10 Blair students, faculty and staff traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, where they connected with children being treated at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Over the course of five days, student volunteers served families breakfast, lunch and dinner, organized games and crafting activities, and spent time learning about the hospital and the research being conducted there.
Among the biggest takeaways for everyone involved is how much illness can affect entire families, but the students were gratified to see how their small efforts impacted those they served even in the most difficult of circumstances. “It was so special to meet all of the kids and families and see how much we can help out by doing small things,” said Emma Swirbul ’21. “All the kids were so happy and always smiling, no matter what was going on in their lives, and it was so rewarding to help out.”
Chaperones Tara Parker and Colleen McNulty were impressed by the maturity, compassion, empathy and kindness Blair students showed to every family they met. “These are teenagers who had many options for how they could spend their long weekend, and this group chose to serve others,” said Mrs. Parker, director of Blair health services. “One family whose child was undergoing treatment for several weeks noted that many groups volunteer at the hospital, but Blair students were very engaging with the children.”
Although not all patients were accustomed to spending time with teenage volunteers, they relished the opportunity to get acquainted with Blair students. “I had a lot of fun getting to know one of the little girls and her mom, hearing their story and what is going on in their lives,” said Mollie Sysler ’21. “It was really inspiring and special that they felt they could talk to me.”
Campbell Craig ’21 also found that patients’ excitement about connecting with her was what made the program special. “Making crafts with children gave you a different perspective on how they live their lives and how this little gesture makes such a difference in their day,” she said. “I worked with a little boy, and he was really shy at first, but I got to know his interests and what he likes to do. We ended up playing catch with him and his friend. It was really a great experience.”
The group was also moved by each family’s gratitude, resilience and ability to remain positive. “I really saw the Blair community come through when we were doing our service,” said Mrs. McNulty, who works in Blair’s advancement office as director of annual giving. “Our students put the empathy, kindness and care they learn at Blair to work as we were serving as a team. Seeing the camaraderie that immediately formed among students who didn’t know each other well at the trip’s outset was inspiring, and kids left with new friends and lifelong memories. ”
Everyone also enjoyed spending time with McKenziee Belton ’16, a longtime St. Jude advocate who organized Blair’s first service trip to the world-renowned research hospital in 2015. Now a senior at Temple University who plans to become a pediatrician, McKenziee regularly volunteers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She and her mother, Lori, flew in to join the Blair group, provided many of the materials for crafts and other activities, and, according to the chaperones, ran the group’s itinerary like a “well-oiled machine.”
“This was such a meaningful experience for the students who participated,” Mrs. Parker said. “It was very sweet to watch when patients smiled, forgot about being sick and were just children for a few hours. We experienced many emotions on this trip and learned what a gift it is to offer your time in service to others.”
In addition to volunteering at St. Jude and Ronald McDonald House and touring the facilities, the group learned more about the hospital, which is funded entirely by donations. They also explored Memphis attractions, including Graceland, Sun Studios, Beale Street and the Civil Rights Museum before flying back to New Jersey.