Veronica Karakosidis sits in the school gym watching her twin boys play. Like most eight-year-olds, Sammy and Frankie are “happy, busy, non-stop little guys—very cute,” says their proud mom. “They just want to play.” The twins are not entirely typical kids though. Sammy and Frankie have Angelman Syndrome, a nervous system disorder that can affect speaking, balance, movement, and intellectual development, and can cause seizures and sleep problems.
But today, Sammy and Frankie get to play just like other kids, thanks to the Playdate program created by VHA Home HealthCare. Playdate gives children with complex medical needs a rare and much-needed opportunity to socialize, play and just have fun as all kids should—with the supervised support of skilled caregivers who are trained to work with medically fragile children.
“The special thing about the Playdate program is that it provides nursing and personal support for these children—because their complex medical needs must be looked after whether they are at play programs, at home or at school,” says Kathryn Nichol, Vice President of Quality, Best Practice, Research and Education and Chief Nursing Executive at VHA. The program is especially valuable for older youth who no longer qualify for most children’s programs, giving them the opportunity to socialize and engage in activities they would not otherwise be able to do.
Playdate is the result of a collaboration between VHA and client and caregiver partners who are parents of children with complex medical needs—one of VHA’s priority areas. Listening to the client voice to co-develop the program ensured that Playdate would meet the unique needs of these families.
“The parents told us there are no play programs that are appropriate for their kids because of the nursing and personal support that’s required,” says Nichol. With Playdate, for six consecutive Saturdays, children in the program can take part in activities that support their gross motor needs, as well as arts and crafts, meeting and learning about exotic animals, playing with a therapy dog, and other activities. “It’s really a wonderful opportunity for kids to play and relax,” adds Nichol.
Playdate also benefits the childrens’ families. The careful supervision provided at the program allows parents to have a few hours of available time to run errands or simply have some time to themselves, which is generally quite rare for these families. “I know the twins are safe and taken care of at VHA’s Playdate and I get a nice break,” Karakosidis says. “I mean… who [else] is going to watch my kids? Nobody trusts themselves to watch them. They think you need to be specialized. But the VHA ladies… they are amazing. We’re so lucky.”
Jas Marwaha, whose son Sahib is in the program, concurs. “He’s very happy when he comes here. He’s ready for Playdate. It’s a great program.”
“When we started the program, we knew we wanted to make Playdate available for free because we know the cost of having a child with complex medical needs is significant,” says Nichol. “We don’t want to burden these families more than they are already burdened.”
The 2019 Spring and Fall Playdate sessions have been made possible by generous funding from the Emajjin Children’s Foundation. The foundation selected Playdate as the beneficiary of its 2018 annual fundraising gala last October. The event raised enough money to cover two programs—one in April/May and another to come in October/November.
VHA is actively looking for sustainable funding for Playdate, which is not currently funded by the government. “We wish this was an ongoing program, especially for children who age out of school programs and really have very few organized programs that have medical support associated with them,” says Nichol. Playdate’s operational costs are relatively small, such as renting the venue and purchasing some supplies and entertainment. “The majority of the cost is ensuring the right nurses and trained personal support workers are on hand to support the children.”
For now, says Nichol, “We are relying on a variety of sources for donations and philanthropy.” Veronica hopes someone will come forward to make the philanthropic investment. “At Playdate, [my sons] get a lot of support and people with energy, which I don’t always have,” she laughs. “It is a fun place for them, it’s safe, and I get a nice break. I never worry if they are going to hurt themselves or hurt someone else. Please continue this program!”
Visit http://bit.ly/PlaydateSpring2019 to see the Playdate families in action and learn more about the program. For more information about the Emajjin Children’s Foundation, please visit www.emajjin.org.