Johanna McCloy wrote several articles as a freelance journalist for Truth Atlas, a magazine “featuring stories about people and ideas making the world a better place”. Truth Atlas provided permission to reprint her articles here.
JOHANNA MCCLOY • JAN. 27, 2014 • HELPERS, SPECIAL FEATURE • ¦4725 views
Paul Schowalter volunteered at Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) every Friday evening for over fifteen years. This is his story as told to Johanna McCloy.
I was born in 1960 and raised in Cucamonga, before it became Rancho Cucamonga. It’s hard to believe that a Los Angeles suburb was once rural, but we had 10 acres of lemons, hay, and pumpkins. I was riding a horse before I could walk, and driving a tractor before I knew what a license was.
I went to college and got a good job. I bought a red sports car and got married. Life was great. Less than one year later, my wife asked for a divorce; a subsequent relationship where I was a de facto dad to a little girl, also ended after two years. By 1995 I was a devastated 35-year-old. After a brief period of self-pity, I knew I had to shift my energy to something positive, focusing, for once in my life, on what I could do for someone else instead of what they could do for me.
As I was looking for the right situation, I realized how much I missed my former girlfriend’s daughter. That was my “a-ha” moment. Kids!
My friends said I should call CHOC, or Children’s Hospital of Orange County. They had different volunteer opportunities, but I knew I wanted to interact with young patients. They thought I’d be a good fit in the child-life department, or recreation therapy. Both were just fancy ways of saying, “You get to play with kids.”
Volunteers must make a commitment, so I picked Friday nights from 6:00-8:00 p.m. due to my work schedule. When I walked into the hospital lobby for the first time, I was both excited and petrified. As soon as I got out of the elevator on the third floor, I almost got run over by a patient riding a Big Wheel, who zipped past me while making engine noises with his mouth before I could move a muscle. The floor was bright, colorful, and loud, with a large plastic basketball hoop in the hallway and finger paintings taped to the walls. It was dynamic and unlike any hospital I’d ever seen. I knew I’d be there for a long time.
There were playrooms on just about every floor, stocked like your local Toys’r Us and open throughout the day in two-hour intervals; otherwise, they were used as classrooms. My job was to staff the playrooms–making sure there was an activity or two, that the kids weren’t splashing paint on the walls, and, obviously, that everyone was safe. If there were two or more volunteers, one of us would go to the rooms where patients weren’t physically able to make it to the playroom, and see if they needed anything. Sometimes, they just wanted a portable game console; other times, they wanted someone to play Score Four with them.
Despite the fact that I was usually wearing a balloon hat or juggling three Barbies, I took my work very seriously. If a new toy came in, I’d ensure it wasn’t a choking hazard. If a child with an I.V. got close to something that could hook the line, I’d jump over a chair to remove the hazard. It wasn’t easy when there might be 10 kids and 15 parents running around the playroom. It could get very loud and hectic, so while that was often good therapy for the kids, I sometimes had to reel them in a bit. Still, my goal was always to make sure they forgot where they were for two hours.
The kids had everything from cancer and cystic fibrosis to rashes and broken arms. Some were there for a couple of hours; others literally lived there. For the first couple of months, I’d cry during that drive home—seeing what these kids were going through was overwhelming. To have a parent shake your hand at the end of the night and tell you that it was the first time their kid has laughed in days was an amazing accomplishment. To know you’re helping someone who may not even make it to her ninth birthday…well, it’s pretty powerful.
After ten years, in 2005, I was named a “Star of CHOC” and got a star pin to wear on my uniform. I was also honored after hitting the 2,000 hour mark. I helped with fundraising events, including the CHOC Walk, an annual 5K run/walk that attracts more than 10,000 people, and for six years designed the brochure, poster, pin, t-shirt, and newsletter, and was the official photographer for the event. And I chaperone a patient and his or her family to the Long Beach Grand Prix Celebrity Race every year. It’s an all-day event where we get treated like royalty. I’ve done that every year that I’ve been with CHOC–I think the Toyota people are sick of me!
[quote style=”boxed”]”Paul is amazing with our patients. The kids and families light up when they see him. He has been such a dedicated, patient, caring, wonderful, volunteer. When Paul escorts a selected family at the Long Beach Grand Prix, he really makes the day extra special for them. I count on Paul every year to take this on for us. I never have to worry, because I know he will be there for them. I just can’t say enough about Paul!” – Emily Grankowski, Manager of Child Life and Interpreter/Translation Services, CHOC Children’s [/quote]
After being there for a long time, my best perk was being able to check the patient list; if I recognized someone, I could go see them (as long as the basic duties were under control). We were warned about not getting attached to patients, but that was pretty impossible. Some of the kids were in there for years and we’d see them several times a month.
The downside was that sometimes we’d lose one. It was devastating. I met great kids that didn’t make it. It’ was so unfair. Not only did they not get a chance at life, but what little they had was often spent in pain or seclusion. All of the things that I’ve done and taken for granted, they’d never do. When those things happened, you realized that you’ve got nothing to complain about. Nothing is as bad as a really sick or dying child.
That’s what changed me the most. Now, I keep things in perspective. I have more energy and a much more positive and upbeat attitude about life. I want to do more. I hug my friends more. I walk taller. I have more confidence. I react to stressful situations better.
Although I had to stop volunteering at CHOC in 2011 when a job took me to Atlanta, I’ve gained so much from that experience. It’s ironic: I did something unselfish to counteract decades of being selfish, but got so rewarded that made it feel selfish.
The kids did that for me.