When Sandee Martensen started volunteering at Westchester Medical Center 15 years ago, she had no idea how drastically it would change her life. An Armonk resident for almost 27 years, Martensen started the nonprofit Pinwheel Project in 2002 to provide support and comfort to children and families in the hospital during a pediatric hospital stay. After a few years volunteering in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Westchester Medical, Martensen branched out and now volunteers at a children’s hospital in the Bronx and provides support at many children’s hospitals in the Greater New York Area. In Martensen’s words, the Pinwheel Project, now equipped with a staff and volunteers, is like “the fairy godmother in the hospital.”
How It All Began
During a volunteer shift at Westchester Medical, Martensen offered to get a cup of tea for a mother sitting with her sick son. The mother was extremely grateful, and Martensen realized that this was exactly what she wanted to do, and how much it meant to parents of ill children. She soon found herself bringing tea and coffee to other families, eventually bringing a volunteer cart from room to room in the hospital with drinks and snacks she brought. She happened to see pinwheels at a supermarket, thought they would be fun to put on the cart, and the rest is history.
Martensen immediately fell in love with the work, noticing how necessary these small gestures of kindness and small bits of love were to these families. Working with sick children is not easy, especially when there is a terminal illness involved, but Martensen truly found her calling. “God gave me the grace somehow to be able to deal with it,” she says, “and to let these parents know that their child mattered, that they would not be forgotten, and that somebody cared about them and their family.” The organization focuses on quality of life for these children; Martensen realized that no matter how serious the illness, children need to simply keep smiling. “I’m a big believer in if you keep the spirit up, you have a much better shot at recovery,” she explains. “I can’t cure them, I can only try to make whatever time they have as wonderful as it can possibly [be].”
Bringing “A Little Sunshine”
The Pinwheel Project cart has become “Willy Wonka on wheels” and “transcends all languages, all cultures.” Martensen sees this as a different kind of medicine, and really takes advantage of the opportunity to get to know the kids and their families and do all she can to provide love, support, and comfort to them, no matter how long their hospital stay. For longer stays, the kids are often trapped in a plain white room for extended periods of time; to make this a little less dreary, Martensen started another program within the Pinwheel Project called My Comfort Zone. This program gives kids a budget and allows them to pick out room décor on Amazon, from sheets and blankets to toys and themed decorations, and then has the objects sent straight to the hospital – allowing the program to work anywhere, not just locally.
The Pinwheel Project also provides meal vouchers for services like GrubHub so children who don’t like hospital food but need the calories can eat in addition to birthday supplies and small requests like special necklaces or hats. “When there’s a perceived need, we’re right there to fill it,” explains Martensen. Martensen knows that people want to help and has created a mechanism whereby individuals can make donations and sponsor a child. Hospitals are scary places, and Martensen notes that “we have to put the humanity back into it.” And that’s exactly what she’s doing. Moving into the future, Martensen hopes to expand programming to an extent, while still maintaining a personal level of support.
Martensen pours so much love and passion into what she does, and it does not go unappreciated. She meets these families at what is often the worst, most traumatic time in their lives, and their response to what she does for them has been remarkable. “I get so much love back from them,” she says. “I get so much kindness and so much gratitude.” She has dozens of incredible stories about the joy she has been able to bring to children during such dark times in their lives, from sending a 19-year-old skydiving to decorating a room in a Hawaiian theme. She simply loves what she does, and loves knowing how much it helps people. “It’s 15 years now and I’m still excited every time I walk in,” she explains. “For me, this is where I’m supposed to be. I know that.”
For more information about this nonprofit, visit www.thepinwheelproject.org. Volunteers with special skills such as jewelry making or puppetry are especially needed.