Working with children who are facing life-threatening illnesses can be simultaneously wonderfully rewarding and terribly difficult. Of course making the dreams of terminally ill children come true, brings an immense sense of fulfilment. But there are also the gut-wrenching days when you are confronted by an empty hospital bed after a child has passed on. We spoke to the two ladies at the helm of the Reach for a Dream Bloemfontein-branch to find out more about what it takes to make dreams come true.
Yolanda Maartens Brown and Sandra Basson both do their jobs with extraordinary passion and inventiveness. Yolanda works as the Reach for a dream branch manager and a dream coordinator, while Sandra is the fundraiser and also a dream coordinator.
Yolanda joined the Reach for a Dream team after having worked in the media industry for seven years and feeling ready for a change. “I knew I had to move into a space where I could make a difference. I had worked with girls from disadvantaged communities for a few years before I went into radio and I knew I wanted to go back to an environment that is hands-on and focused on the needs of others,” she says.
“I completed a Masters in Sustainable Development and Disaster Management at the North-West University in 2011 and always knew that it would be a vital part of my future endeavours. So in March 2016 I finally joined the Reach for a Dream foundation.”
Just a few months later Sandra also joined the Reach for a Dream team. “It was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. I had been doing charity work for years in my personal time and then I got this opportunity to do something worthwhile every day and truly make a difference,” she says.
The good and the bad
“I really believe in what Reach for a Dream does,” says Sandra. “It is inspiring to watch the kids fight their illnesses with so much grace. Being able to give them a little hope and showing them that tomorrow is worth fighting for is incredibly rewarding.”
Yolanda echoes Sandra’s sentiments and explains that Reach for a Dream often gives children the motivation they need to continue fighting their illnesses. “The Reach for a Dream foundation is unique in that it works with children who are often overlooked when it comes to organisations who work in the medical field,” she says.
“Our goal is to make the dreams come true of children between the ages of three and 18 years who are facing life-threatening illnesses. These children don’t get to be children in that they spend most of their young lives in hospital, getting treatment and know knowing what it is like to dream about the future. We raise funds to make their dream days possible – a day where they forget the pain, focus on life outside the hospital and get to be a kid. Whether it is meeting their sporting heroes, taking a dance class, getting an Xbox or riding a bicycle, every dream matters and often gives children the hope that tomorrow may be better. That is what drives me to do this.”
Of course some days are more difficult than others. Working with children who have the constant threat of death around them and inevitably having some children pass away never gets easier.
“The rule is we don’t cry in the ward,” says Yolanda. “We try and interact with the children that we work with in as normal way as possible. Every other adult that they see is either a doctor or a nurse or someone who feels sorry for them. We look past the tubes and machines and we get them to also forget about their situation. We ensure our interaction is memorable and that they associate us with fun, positivity and laughter. Children want to play and laugh irrespective of how ill they may be.”
Sandra adds that the Reach for a Dream team know how to support each other through the difficult times and allow each other to talk about their feelings and the things that bring them down. “But the smile that appears on a child’s face when you have just made their dream come true, makes everything worth it,” she says.
Dare to dream
Reach for a Dream in Bloemfontein fulfils more than 180 dreams every year – that’s between 15 and 18 dreams every month. When asked about their favourite dreams they’ve made a reality, both Yolanda and Sandra have a hard time picking just one.
“I really enjoy the shopping dreams. It’s really fun to see the girls excitedly picking out clothes and accessories that they have dreamt about for so long. Even the shyest ones come out of their shells while shopping,” says Sandra. “A particular little three-year-old I took shopping has been my absolute favourite. Despite being so young, she knew exactly what she wanted and had no problem telling us no if she didn’t like something. She literally danced through the aisles and sported the biggest most beautiful smile I had ever seen.”
Yolanda tells us about a five-year-old girl who was battling a brain tumour and had been in ICU for nearly two months. After spending hours with her and talking about her dream, all Yolanda got from this little one was “cupcakes” and “sing to me”. So that is exactly what they did.
“Her dream day had to happen in hospital as she was too ill to leave the ward,” says Yolanda. “We brought cupcakes for everyone in the ward and had invited two puppets to join us. The little girl received her own private puppet show with the puppets singing songs for her. She was ecstatic! She clapped her little hands with glee and sang along with the puppets. To see her smile is worth more than any expensive gift we could have bought her.”
Some of the dreams the two ladies are fulfilling in the near future is a girl’s dream of wanting to be in a fashion show, a spunky little girl who wants to go around the track at Kyalami in a Ford Mustang Shelby and a teenager who dreams of flying in an aeroplane. Nothing is too difficult or too much trouble for this passionate duo!
One of the biggest challenges Reach for a Dream faces is raising the necessary funds to make all these dreams come true. “People see us in the ward handing out ‘gifts’ and think we are a rich charity. But every single dream costs money and we have to raise the funds for these special days. Every item we give to a child, every balloon, cupcake and surprise is sponsored. It takes up a huge amount of time to get corporates and individuals to buy into these dream days,” says Yolanda.
“The other challenge is time. Some children are very ill and do not live for long. I appeal to parents and family members to get the necessary treatment, speak to professionals and refer your child to the foundation as soon as possible. It breaks my heart when I hear about a child who had passed away and we could have given him or her an amazing day.”
Sandra adds that the language barrier can sometimes be tricky as the children and their parents don’t always speak the same languages as the dream coordinators do. Luckily the foundation has an amazing fieldworker, Mavis Ngcoboka, who often steps in as a translator. “Luckily everyone speaks the language of love, so even when they don’t understand us, the love and happiness on their faces speak volumes,” she says.
Making a difference
How can ordinary people help these children and make a difference. “That’s easy!” says Yolanda. “Not all dreams are very expensive. For some dreams we only need people’s time. Often children dream of flying in an aeroplane, driving in a sports car, playing an instrument or learning to bake – these dreams do not really cost money, but we rely on individuals to give some of their time to make the dreams come true,” she explains.
“Businesses or companies can decide to come on board and do a dream with us. As the assessments come in, we make a list of current dreams and work out a cost-estimate for each. If your business is interested you can decide to ‘adopt’ a dream by fundraising that amount. You get to join us on the day if you like and be part of the magic of inspiring hope. You can also choose to donate money to the Bloemfontein branch to help us make dreams come true in the Northern Cape, Free State and Lesotho.”
“It sounds clichéd, but it is really true that every little bit helps,” Sandra chimes in. “Donations make it possible for us to make a difference. People can also buy a bear from us for R100 and either keep the bear or donate it to a sick child.”
Yolanda adds that seeing for yourself how these children are fighting for their lives, will change you forever. “If you spend one day walking in the shoes of the parents we work with, the parents who spend their days watching over a very ill child, you will be more grateful for your own health and the health of your children,” she says.
“Perhaps you will even be more forgiving when someone is not as kind to you as you are to them. When you have seen how short life is for some, you don’t waste it by being bitter. Giving hope to these children truly is priceless.”