Two three-year olds bounce around, hugging people’s legs and demanding to be picked up. Other children, wheelchair-bound, smile at or laugh with the volunteers scattered around the room. A two-year old boy climbs up to reach the cookie cutters spilled across the table before a volunteer scoops him up in a hug. Sally Sunshine, the group leader, is setting out stickers, markers, and strawberry jam. Finished setting up, she turns to help an eight-year old boy color his very own chef’s hat. He can’t speak, but his face lights up as she talks to him and helps him hold the marker. It may be raining outside, but inside the mood is as bright as the yellow shirts the volunteers wear.

Sally Sunshine found her calling in, perhaps, the oddest of places: a jewelry store. Popular jewelry designer Helen Ficalora has created charms benefiting several non-profit organizations.  “I went into the store to specifically purchase one thing and left with a laundry list of causes to research,” Sally told me. One of those causes was Project Sunshine.

Sally Sunshine and other Project Sunshine volunteers

Project Sunshine empowers a dynamic and dedicated corps of over 10,000 volunteers to bring programming – recreational (arts), educational (tutoring and mentoring) and social service (HIV and nutritional counseling) – to over 60,000 children facing medical challenges and their families in 100 major cities across the United States and in five international satellite sites: Canada, China, Israel, Kenya and Puerto Rico. These programs range from arts and crafts, cooking and tutoring to spa programs for parents, reading programs, and mural painting on hospital walls.

“After completing Project Sunshine’s volunteer training, I volunteered at a variety of programs and really fell in love with Project Sunshine’s motto of ‘Bringing Sunshine to a Cloudy Day,’” Sally said. “It’s so simple yet it has such a huge impact.”

Since then, Sally has volunteered regularly with Project Sunshine, donating a few hours each month to plan and run programs for children and families living with medical challenges. “When I first volunteered in a facility that housed very sick, medically fragile children, I left the facility feeling drained and defeated, questioning whether I would return,” Sally told me.  “Instead of letting my fear get the best of me, I returned month after month until I realized that one child who could not communicate verbally knew exactly who I was and smiled a big smile when asked if he was happy to see Project Sunshine.  All of the free time in the world could not take the feeling of accomplishment and pride that I felt in that moment.”

Sally Sunshine and other Project Sunshine volunteers at a Project Sunshine 5k walk/run

Sally leads a Union Square, NYC chapter that runs a monthly Sunshine Chefs program for children at Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center. The children – of all ages, some at the hospital for a short time and others for months or even years – decorate chef hats and aprons, and prepare food. Even those children who can’t eat love helping prepare and then playing with the food.

“The Sunshine Chefs program not only offers our children a wonderful sensory experience but also gives them the ability to help prepare their own food which is an uncommon opportunity in a facility like ours,” Kristin Smeallie, Seton Pediatric Center Recreation Coordinator, commented. “The volunteers that work with our children are amazingly sensitive and are always excited about the activity, which is such a positive influence on the children.”

Volunteering with Project Sunshine has opened Sally’s life to possibilities she might never have considered otherwise. “I had complete tunnel vision from high school through college creating only one end result [working in law].  I never went out and researched employment possibilities or tried to find what I was truly passionate about.  I only recently discovered social responsibility and its importance in the work place.  Had I heard about or studied such a concept earlier, I believe my path would have been much different.” Sally is now actively pursuing a career in the non-profit sector. “I would like to be in a position where I can work with and give back to the community, which I believe is extremely important… Being a chapter leader has given me the insight into the responsibility, initiative and level of coordination that goes into the execution of these programs. In a downturned job market, this is my way to ‘work’ in a field that I feel at home in, and truly believe in.”

“Sally embodies all the characteristics of what Project Sunshine looks for in its volunteers,” praises Naomi Remis Sugar, Associate Program Manager at Project Sunshine. “Sally is organized, dedicated and most importantly, passionate about spreading Project Sunshine’s mission and programs to children and families living with medical challenges. Sally not only inspires the children to release their inner joy, but also inspires the volunteers to give from their hearts and truly spread the sunshine to those in need.”

Sally’s advice to others? “Find a cause that you are passionate about and make it your own, because you will take so much more away from your experiences.”

Project Sunshine charm by Helen Ficalora. The charm is available in both silver and gold here:

For more information on Project Sunshine:
For information on Helen Ficalora’s jewelry and charms:
Volunteer photos used courtesy Sally Sunshine

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