I spoke with Dream Team Programming Director, Mackenzie Geiger, about one of the most highly acclaimed UF Health volunteering programs available in Gainesville. Geiger is a senior majoring in health science, and has been with the program since the summer of 2014.
KK: What is Dream Team?
MG: Dream Team is a volunteer organization that works with children in cardiac care at UF Health Shands Hospital. We work one-on-one with the children every week to improve their stay. We also host special events including movie nights, holiday parties, and Superhero Sundays.
KK: Describe your application process and upcoming important dates for prospective volunteers.
MG: Our Spring application will be coming out on November 23, and it is very competitive. In the past, we’ve gotten hundreds of applications and have only been able to accept about 90 volunteers. We mostly look to see if the applicants have experience working with children with special needs or in a hospital setting.
KK: How did the organization begin?
MG: The organization began in the Spring of 2014. The founder, Alex Breslin, loved volunteering in the pediatric unit at UF Health Shands and felt that the children in the newly finished Pediatric Cardiac ICU were not getting the attention that they needed. He realized more could be done and collaborated with others who felt the same. Thus, Dream Team was created. What began as about 30 volunteers has grown quickly into 90. We have 62 volunteers who attend three hour shifts each week in the Pediatric Cardiac ICU and the PICU, where they spend one-on-one time with patients, brightening their days. Many patients remain in the Pediatric Cardiac ICU for extended stays, and form amazing relationships with our volunteers over time. In the Fall of 2014, we began to host special events and now hold about 15 events each semester. These special events include movie nights, arts and crafts days, interactive science experiments, holiday parties, and Superhero Sundays. Each semester, Dream Team has grown larger, and in the Summer of 2015 we expanded into the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.
KK: What are some of the most memorable moments you have been a part of with the organization?
MG: Some of my most memorable moments have been collaborating on the Capes for Kids project, during Superhero Sundays. One patient wanted a Batgirl cape and we were able to specially create the emblem for her. Seeing her eyes light up at how awesome and soft the cape was made my day and she proceeded to take a nap using the cape as a blanket. One boy received a black cape and decided he was Darth Vader. We spent the afternoon pretending pool cues were lightsabers and dueling all around the playroom. When those children put on the capes they actually transform into superheroes and, as corny as it sounds, seeing them that happy is an amazing thing.
Another memorable moment was hearing that a child, who had his own team of volunteers, received his heart transplant and was able to go home. Many of our volunteers had become close to this patient and he constantly had volunteers in his room playing videogames, watching tv, or just hanging out. Seeing him leave was a bittersweet thing because of the attachment that the volunteers had made.
One Friday we had a movie night with two kids where we did face painting and pumpkin decorating while watching Hotel Transylvania. The kids ended up making a boys side and a girls side of the room with signs and everything. The boy told us one of the volunteers was his ‘best friend’ and they both got their faces painted like tigers. It was a great time and the volunteers didn’t want to leave once the movie was over.
Each volunteer could tell a million different stories about how much fun they’ve had during their shifts.”
KK: Is Dream Team strictly for students on the pre-health track?
MG: No, it’s definitely not! Dream Team is specifically helpful for students who are on a pre-health track and want to get involved in the hospital, but we are made up of extremely dedicated volunteers that care about children and want to make their stay in the hospital a little better. We have many different directorship positions including public relations and finance.
KK: Describe a typical shift.
MG: At the beginning of a shift the three volunteers receive a census with a list of all of the patients in the unit. The Child Life Specialists designate which children they want us to visit and if they’ve already asked for something in particular.
We then go around to the different rooms and see if the children want us to play with them. We bring arts and crafts, movies, board games, or video games, and hang out with the kids for as long as they want. Sometimes, we’ll drop off activities for the kids to do with their parents, and with babies we’ll stand there and talk to them or hold them.
Many times, these children have a long stay and their parents are unable to be there all of the time, or sometimes they just need a break. We’re there to provide these parents some relief and also put them at ease, knowing that their children have someone to play with and talk to.
KK: What makes Dream Team different than all the other health-related volunteer opportunities available in Gainesville?
MG: Dream Team is different from other health-related volunteer opportunities, because we are given the special opportunity to make connections with these amazing children. Because many of them are long-term patients, we have the opportunity to create relationships with them and their families. Meeting these kids who are incredibly resilient and strong really puts everything into perspective. I can’t speak for other volunteering opportunities, but I believe that Dream Team is life changing. You don’t walk away the same after you meet these kids; they definitely make an impression on you. I believe that our volunteers are overly dedicated because most have a hard time leaving their shift; leaving late because they’re having so much fun with a kid. Dream Team is full of committed students who are incredibly passionate about these children.