Imagine a childhood with no play dates or spring break trips.
Imagine spending more time in a hospital room than in a classroom.
Imagine seeing your home as a cage rather than a sanctuary.
Morning, <Name>. That was reality for the kids Amanda Winn shared the 9th floor of the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital with for 10 months. The Grand Rapids native had just graduated and launched her architecture career when she was diagnosed the stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a life-threatening blood cancer that upended her plans.
A slip-of-a-woman, the petite Amanda found herself in the children’s hospital, down the corridor from Marisa, an 5-year-old pixie fighting Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and across the hall from Clayton, an 3-year-old superhero-ninja-dynamo battling Nueroblastoma. She found herself falling in love with these pint-size warriors who were battling major scary stuff, just like she was – but without the benefit of understanding, which comes with age.
Amanda mourned for what she was missing – dancing and dinner parties and holiday shopping with friends, all the normal things that were suddenly out of reach. The chemotherapy that was saving her life was also destroying her immune system, which meant that even a tiny germ could bring a major setback.
Isolation was the price of health – but that isolation took a toll on Amanda, her parents, her sister and her close friends. And she watched the toll it took on Marisa and Clayton and all the other boys and girls up and down the hall fighting for their lives, yearning for normal.
Just wanting to be a kid again. Not knowing if that was in the cards.
Fueled by those cherub faces, Amanda vowed she was going to do something about that loneliness. And unlike most of us who make promises amid chaos, Amanda kept her word.
And in 2015, the Children’s Healing Center was born. The CHC, as it is affectionately known to its legions of fans, is the nation’s first year-round recreation center for kids with compromised immune systems. Yes, kids coping with cancer, but also with organ transplants, prune belly, congenital heart conditions and a host of alphabet-soup diagnoses that numb parents’ brains as they threaten little lives.
Amanda’s architect training helped her to design a 7,000 square-foot fun palace that meets hospital-grade standards for cleanliness – yet without the pokes and prods and doctors and nurses. All visitors are screened before they enter to make sure there are no signs of illness, no inklings of germs. Special air filters and other HVAC equipment keep the Center super clean. There’s no carpeting or fabric where germs can hide, and everything is cleaned thoroughly after each and every use.
Amanda (center, in blue) playing with members during a superhero day camp.
After that, the skies the limit. Kids can choose from one of four program areas: exploratory play, active fitness space, a tech zone and the art and learning play. There’s a make-believe store, built by Amanda’s dad, where kids can fill their grocery baskets with wooden bananas and pizzas. There are piles and piles of blue foam blocks, just perfect for building castles. There’s a rainbow of construction paper and markers waiting to be transformed into daisies or dinosaurs. There are scooters and balls and baskets and hoops – and no end of smiling, laughing, loving volunteers and staff who make it their mission for all who enter to have fun.
It took Amanda five years to translate her dream of a place that would break down the walls of isolation and build bridges that would allow sick kids and their families to connect, to have fun – to experience normal again, even if just for a few hours every week. With not a fundraising bone in her body, she was able to raise $2.3 million so that Marisa and Clayton and all those other kids who came after them would have a safe, clean and immensely fun place to play – for free.
Some of West Michigan’s leading philanthropists have signed on to Amanda’s vision. They write checks, but more than that, they join her for tea parties and play dates. Their children volunteer, forming bonds with teens and tweens and little ones eager to make friends.
In the 2+ years that the CHC has been open, Amanda and her team have gone through 34,912 wipes for the more than 600 kids, siblings and parents who have walked through the front door, tucked a thermometer between their lips and taken off their shoes. The Center has seen 1,373 family visits, totaling 163,861 minutes of play.
But they’ve lost count of the smiles, all those beautiful smiles, from the kids who are enjoying being just kids for a while – and the brothers and sisters and parents who cherish them.
The CHC’s website, with more information about the Center, can be found at: http://www.childrenshealingcenter.org/.
Wouldn’t you like to talk with Amanda, to hear more of her story firsthand?