By Matt Smith
Are you looking to do some good and give back to the community? Want to help out in an area steeped in nature and off the beaten path? Willing to provide aid and comfort for a variety of sick kids who are looking for playtime with someone just like you? Only a short drive on the Taconic State Parkway, just beyond the entrance to Cedar Lane, tucked away on a hill and nestled among the trees, you’ll find your answer. Referred to affectionately by various staff members as “Ossining’s Hidden Gem,” Sunshine Children’s Home and Rehabilitation Center provides 24-hour treatment for medically complex children, newborn-age 18, who require that long-term residential care.
Originally opened as St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Center for Children, the venue was bought by current owner Ari Friedman in September 2009, who rechristened it with its current name. And it is truly a home in the fullest sense of the word.
“We don’t look anything like a hospital, we don’t want to look anything like a hospital,” says Administrator and Director Linda Mosiello, who states that the goal of the organization is to keep each resident happy, and with a smile on their face. “Some of [these kids] have life-limiting diagnoses. So, the idea is to create quality for their time of life, however long that may be.”
And they do that by normalizing the environment in the best way they can. “We create a typical day in the life of a child,” continues Mosiello, citing that all the kids are in school programs as soon as the day begins. Operated in conjunction with Northern Westchester BOCES–with which Sunshine has held a partnership since 2011–these programs are offered on three levels: Elementary, Middle School, and High School. Additionally, Sunshine runs a preschool program (in a separate building) for their younger residents.
Each program uses a combination of special education professionals and teaching staff, as well as occupational therapists and speech pathologists. Other therapists and nurses are always available on-site, and may sometimes sit in on classes, if needed, for easy access to residents. But, other than that, it’s “normalcy as best we can do it, despite their complexities,” explains Mosiello. “Kids at home don’t sit around all day in beds, [and] our kids don’t either.”
But, the good news is that when the kids are in bed, they’re in a room custom-decorated just for them. Comments Mosiello, “[The room] really is their space. We make the improvements that would bring a bit more whimsy to their day.” With three beds to a room, residents are divided into three wings: Saplings, Willow, and Cedar–“you can tell I’m into trees,” Mosiello says with a laugh–and, for the most part, boys are housed with boys (in Cedar) and girls are housed with girls (in Willow). The exceptions? Toddlers (housed in Saplings) and siblings live together, regardless of gender; the former, because of their young age; the latter, to keep that familial bond. (Of note, Sunshine currently has five sets of siblings in their facility).
Mosiello also stresses, on the subject of making the space feel like a home, the importance of keeping the patients’ families involved in their child’s daily activities. “This is their home, too,” she continues, explaining that all families have unrestricted visiting hours. “[Parents] do enjoy coming in and watching their child during their school day. It’s very comforting for them to see [the child] in such a typical routine.”
Furthermore, she recognizes the need for a family to know their child is safe, and acknowledges the impact that Sunshine, as a place of comfort, may have on an entire family. “These parents have been very traumatized by what has happened [in terms of their child’s diagnosis,” she says. “Our goal is to create a seamless transition for the families [into our facility]. This place [is] not just for the child. It is for the family to heal.”
And that “healing place” will hopefully get bigger soon, as Sunshine is planning to expand their facility. The venue has proposed construction of a new building on site, which would add approximately 127,000 square feet to their current 19,000 square-foot property. The expansion would also create an additional 68 beds within the facility, allowing capacity to increase from 54 kids to 122.
“We desperately need this space in order to improve the quality of care and living for our children and to make room for the overwhelming number of children who need to be here,” says Mosiello. “We have a long waiting list right now, and in addition to that waiting list, there are kids out there every day struggling to survive. I’m looking forward to being able to meet the needs of these families who are waiting.”
The expansion would also relieve many staff members of various space constraints. For one, as of this writing, the elementary school program is held in the day room (where playtime is held), and nurses and doctors have makeshift offices in storage closets. “When you have no space, you get creative with how to use [what you have],” comments Mosiello.
She notes, on that subject, that the close proximity of the staff members has created a significant eternal bond between them. “We’ve created a community here, and we’re so small, that it’s really very beautiful. All of our staff, from housekeeping to physicians….[are] a family here.”
Volunteer Opportunities at Sunshine
On that note, if you’d like to do your part and “commit to these kids” as well, Sunshine has an array of various volunteer opportunities, all available to members of the local community. “We work with [everyone] young to old for our volunteer program,” says Mosiello. “That’s what our kids love.”
“We have lovely student programs,” explains Director of Social Work Susan Pinckney. “[Sunshine] works with juniors and seniors from local high schools, including Fordham Prep, Hackley, and schools in Ossining and Croton, who come to do their [required] senior community service hours.” Pinckney notes these students work mainly in the Therapeutic Play program, which focuses on creating leisure-type activities for the children. Additionally, college students come in for social work internships, or to shadow a nurse or therapist.
“And then we have our Community Moms and retirees,” Pinckney continues. “[They] come in to be part of our Cuddle Club and [volunteer to] rock a baby, or to get down on a mat and play with a child.”
The Town of New Castle’s Chappaqua Cares organization led by Dawn Greenberg and Jessica Reinmann, for example, are welcomed volunteers at Sunshine. This group of New Castle community volunteers helped plant garden beds in the Sunshine gardens and also created gift bags for a “moms’ retreat” that Sunshine held as a special bonding day for the mothers of the children who live at Sunshine.
“We’re an opportunity for education and professional service in that way,” states Mosiello. “And I hear all the time that they always get more [back] than they think they’re giving.”
Additional volunteer opportunities include the Friendly Visitor program, wherein volunteers can come in once a week for a scheduled, one-to-one play session with a resident; or a Special Events volunteer, wherein students assist and/or accompany staff members and children on various off-site trips, special events, or the occasional birthday celebration. Of note, the girls of Sunshine have been giving back to the community themselves: Sunshine recently formed their own Girl Scout Troop, within the Ossining Girl Scouts.
The high-spirited energy at Sunshine resonates with its supporters. Mosiello notes that Friedman, who has invested millions of dollars of his own money to fund Sunshine’s overall operation, has two critically ill children himself. She states: “He understands what that’s like. He sees it through the eyes of these parents.” For better or worse, perhaps that’s why the facility works so well, as Friedman can relate firsthand to “parents [who] have had their entire world rocked when their baby arrives early [or suffers traumatic brain injury]. The goal is to create a seamless transition for the families,” focusing on peace, serenity and healing in a time of crisis. For this reason, and to aid in this transition, Friedman and Mosiello made sure their oasis was encompassed in natural refuges.
Two favorites of Mosiello’s include a pond, located just outside the main building, and a porch, built in 2013, just off one of the classrooms, both installed to instill the feeling of home for their inhabitants. “[Families] can take a walk, relax, and feel like they’re in a park,” says Mosiello. Additionally, she states these outside spaces allow the kids to enjoy a full sensory experience. “They love to feel the wind and the air, and listen to the [water from the] fountains.”
“It’s this kind of aesthetic that speaks to the commitment of the ownership of this organization,” adds Mosiello. Again, she reiterates: “It was to create something of beauty. It’s not a business. It’s a home.” And, due to the hard work and dedication of Friedman, Mosiello, Pinckney, and the tireless staff of teachers, doctors, physicians, therapists, and nurses, it’s undoubtedly, and aptly, a home filled with Sunshine…each and every day.
Sunshine Children’s Home is located at 15 Spring Valley Road in Ossining. For more information, please visit www.sunshinechildrenshome.org.
Matt Smith, a proud graduate of Skidmore College, is a regular contributor to The Inside Press, Inc.