Starlight Children’s Foundation tackles chronic illnesses through ‘kid-friendly’ hospital redecorations

Alice Yin, Development and Recruitment Editor

Jessica Dunning’s son, Anthony, isn’t supposed to go on airplanes. Yet, a couple years ago, he was able to fly out of O’Hare International Airport at 10,000 feet to go “visit Santa Claus.”

The Dunnings are one of more than 60 million families that have been served by the Starlight Children’s Foundation, this year’s chosen beneficiary for Dance Marathon. The nonprofit, originating from Los Angeles, seeks to transform hospitals into more kid-friendly environments for children and teenagers. From balloon-lined playrooms to Disney on Ice family outings, the foundation has provided therapeutic distraction for chronically ill patients since 1982.

“Oftentimes the hospital environment is very, very scary and run down and needs a facelift,” said Jacquie Hart, the CEO of Starlight. “Nowadays children’s hospitals look more like an aquarium or children’s museum than a hospital.”

Research has shown that children cope with illnesses better in a friendly environment, Hart said.

“Health is I think so important because without it you really don’t have anything, regardless of wealth or socioeconomic opportunities, what have you,” Hart said. “Especially being touched as a child is so profound that I don’t think anyone would walk away from the opportunity to support and uplift a child.”

DM’s proceeds this year will go to funding Starlight Sites in the Midwest, predominantly in the Chicago area, Hart said. These imaginative playrooms and care rooms, first established in the organization in 1990, feature kid-friendly mural walls splashed with color, no “white coat zones,” video games and more.

Dunning said her kids all still talk about the adventures they went on, such as that airplane ride, that were made possible by Starlight. The mother of three, from Dundee, Illinois, said she also remembers her children having access to features such as video games in the waiting room and therapeutic horseback riding.

“Things had been so rough,” she said. “It’s a good way to keep their minds off and get normalcy.”

She said Starlight’s impact has been “life-changing.” Dunning would have never been able to go to such events with her kids without Starlight, she said.

“When you have children with special needs, not only is it just hard on the daily, it’s hard financially,” Hart said. “You tend to put most of your money into bettering your child’s health.”

Marissa Penrod, the CEO of Team Joseph, who returned to speak on behalf of last year’s DM beneficiary, said Starlight has a cause that had been “underfunded and not pushed as forcefully” until the nonprofit began its work.

“Joseph spends a lot of time around doctors,” Penrod said of her son, who was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. “We all just want what we consider to be normal for our kids and when you’re in a hospital setting often that can’t happen.”

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