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Go Ask Mom

Wonder Connection: Bringing science, nature to pediatric patients

Posted November 27

Two brothers shooting off rockets in their hospital room as part of the Wonder Connection, which brings science and nature programs to pediatric patients.

Tuesday is Giving Tuesday, when, after the bustle of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we're encouraged to refocus our attention on what's more important than getting the deals - friends, family and community.

And here's a group that's making a difference in the lives of a lot of kids in our region: Wonder Connection. This wonderful group provides programs for pediatric patients and their families at UNC Children's Hospital and local Ronald McDonald Houses.

"Wonder Connection is an awesome program that allows kids in the hospital to experience the joy of being outdoors without the dangers of germs," said Leah, one of the patients they've served over the years.

Three dedicated people, who all just happen to be parents, make it happen - Katie Stoudemire, program manager, a mom of one, who has been working with hospitalized kids for more than 10 years; Andrew Torlage, program coordinator and a dad of one who grew up in South Africa and loves getting others excited about nature; and Julie Yarnell, program associate and a mom of four who says her work with Wonder Connection has been the most rewarding in her career.

I checked in to learn more about the program and how we can help. Here's a Q&A:

Go Ask Mom: What's Wonder Connection all about?

Julie Yarnell: Wonder Connection is all about fun, experimenting and being a kid. Wonder Connection is a one-of-a-kind program from the North Carolina Botanical Garden that provides pediatric patients with a connection to the natural world via hands-on natural science activities. Our programming provides patients with joy, increases patients’ science knowledge and acts as an inspiration for their futures. Patients can choose from a wide variety of activities including (but not limited to) digging for shark’s teeth, launching rockets, playing with pretend snow or making goo.

GAM: When and why did it get started?

Katie Stoudemire: I have always loved being outside and, I figured that if I was hospitalized, what I’d want would be a way to play and also to connect with nature. I was a volunteer at several different children’s hospitals during and after college and an environmental educator. I started bringing in shells and other natural objects to the children’s hospital and had an incredibly positive response from the kids I was working with and decided that was what I wanted to do. After a few years of trying to fundraise, I started the program with a small grant in 2006 and brought it to the North Carolina Botanical Garden in 2011.

GAM: Why is it so important to provide these kinds of programs to pediatric patients?

Andrew Torlage: Hospitals can be very sterile, lonely and even scary places - especially for a child. We often feel that when a child is hospitalized, it is like their childhood has been put on pause. Where days were filled with friends, adventure and a feeling of endless possibilities, after hospitalization, they are more likely defined by strict regulation and often filled with feelings of fear, boredom, pain and isolation from friends and the natural world.

Wonder Connection is so important because it gives back elements of childhood. Fun, choice, discovery, interaction with nature and with others are all key components of the program. Studies have shown that positive emotions (which are a goal and result of Wonder Connection programming) can have positive health benefits.

GAM: What's it like to actually bring these programs into the hospitals? What are the reactions like from the kids?

Andrew: It’s incredibly rewarding to open a hospital door and see a child’s eyes light up when that it’s “the science guy." When parents thank me for doing science activities with their child, I often have to admit that I’ve had just as much fun as their son or daughter.

Katie: It’s awesome! I love it! And so do the kids and teens. We’ve done several program evaluations and with the last one, 100 percent of pediatric patients felt positive emotions as a result of Wonder Connection programming.

Julie: It is the best part of my week! I often say that it is crazy that I get paid to have this much fun! One patient that I have seen several times before puts his fists in the air and yells, “Yeeessssss!,” when I walk into his room. A child that is sad, in some pain or nervous is often smiling and laughing by the time we leave. Parents have said things like, “This is the first time s/he has laughed in days” or, “Doing science with you is the one thing he looks forward to when he knows he will be admitted.”

GAM: How can people help?

Andrew: Volunteer! If you have some free time on your hands, love working with children and like the idea of exploding rockets and playing with Venus flytraps, then we’d love to hear from you.

Julie: Follow us on Facebook. Share and like our posts. Share your own experiences with Wonder Connection on your own timeline and tag Wonder Connection.

Katie: Help us spread the word! Also, we are totally funded by grants and donations. You can make a tax-deductable donation through the NCBG’s website.

Go Ask Mom features local parents every Monday.

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