For parents caring for a sick or injured child in the hospital, they’ve known the loneliness and despair that might come in the quiet hours of the night, when staff is reduced and their child is struggling with pain or fear.
When they learned of those parents and their need of support, a group of Pasadena women walked the halls at one of the top pediatric hospitals in California, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. As they realized the implications of having only one chaplain on staff to serve the thousands in need, on weekends and at all hours of the night, they pledged efforts to ensure the funding of spiritual support 24/7 for people of all faiths and denominations. To that end, the group formed the Spiritual Care Guild nonprofit organization in 2003 to wholly support the Spiritual Care Department at CHLA, which cares for some the sickest children across Southern California.
Today, CHLA has five chaplains on staff, with a support staff of 15-18 rotating pastor “interns,” through its Clinical Pastoral Education Program. Together, with an amplified resource list of other area clergy on call, the staff can attend to the needs of Christians from all different denominations and those of the Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and other faiths.
No matter the faith, the Spiritual Care Guild’s mission is to provide compassion and solace to families as their child faces a serious illness or life-threatening injury. And though the research may still be out on the power of prayer, proponents argue that it is a deeply human response in times of fear and uncertainty, providing peace of mind.
“In the moment when your child is having surgery, you feel helpless,” said guild President Sara Larson, who has spent many days and nights at CHLA for her daughter, who was born with a genetic disorder requiring multiple surgeries.
Larson recalled when her baby was undergoing a prolonged surgery, the Spiritual Care Department put on a Mass for the entire family.
“It was amazing. You’ve entrusted your baby to these doctors and nurses that you’ve only met for a handful of minutes, and as a parent, you want to be able to do something, anything. To have that moment to pray together and uplift those doctors … it meant everything to us,” said Larson, who later joined the guild to help give back to CHLA’s Spiritual Care Department. “When you have an experience that has moved and changed your life so much, you do whatever you can to make it better for the next person who comes along.”
The guild realized the importance of financial backing to a hospital department that never gets reimbursed through insurance, quipping, “Hospital chaplains do not bill for their time.”
Today, with the guild’s support, chaplains serve the 300,000 families that come through CHLA’s doors annually, visiting up to 12 families a day and more than 4,000 families a year. They provide a supportive presence when a family hears a difficult diagnosis for their child, and are there to stay with a family at the end of life and help it navigate difficult medical and ethical decisions.
They are able to provide conversations, prayers, blessings, communion and baptism ceremonies, sacred literature, Shabbat candles, kosher refrigerators and Islamic prayer rugs to meet a wide range of interfaith needs.
The head of CHLA’s Spiritual Care Department, the Rev. Dagmar Grefe, has worked diligently with the guild to realize the hospital’s well-rounded 24/7 spiritual care and to celebrate the cultural diversity representing the melting pot that is Southern California.
“We are very grateful for their support; the guild has really helped us to expand services and provide tangible items. … They want to support us financially but also provide a deeper commitment and have a personal connection to what we’re doing,” said Grefe, who was attracted to the “whole family care” she’s been able to provide at the hospital. “Children bring something very unique to the care here — they are very resilient. It’s very humbling to work with kids who are very, very sick, in the sense that you see those little souls and what they have to go through, often with a wisdom beyond their years, and then the families who care for them while they go through all that. … It’s quite amazing.”
To help support the caregivers of the children at the hospital, the guild also helped to spearhead a powerful idea, one that Grefe has taken to a new level with the chaplain interns: Tea for the Soul. A simple idea, Tea for the Soul is a decorated tea cart filled with aromatic teas and homemade cookies, wheeled to a hospital unit to provide the clinical staff a moment to regroup and share their pain and frustration as they care for some of the most critically ill children.
“Our staff needs to huddle and regroup. … It can be very trying when there is a loss; they can come under enormous stress and pressure,” noted Grefe, explaining that the tea time is for the staff caregivers to sit, relax, be served and reflect on their feelings.
The guild’s members bake six dozen cookies every week and donate all the supplies for the Tea for the Soul, which does more than 100 tea “interventions” per year.
“I don’t think we really realized the impact the tea cart was having right away,” said the guild’s past president, Heather Dinger. “In the midst of the chaos they can set up this little place for the staff so they can regroup. The chaplains pour the tea and pass out the cookies for the doctors, nurses and technicians who are taking care of these little children. It’s a time for the chaplains to take care of those who care for others — it’s really become a part of the culture on the hospital unit floors.”
Over time, the guild has embraced its “cookie girl” persona, even creating an Angels in Action fundraising campaign that allows donors to choose a recipient of the nonprofit’s cookie care packages. “It’s also a way to spread our message,” Dinger added.
Apart from providing funding for a chaplain’s salary, the tea cart and support for the hospital’s Clinical Pastoral Education Program, the guild also provides all the supplies for chaplains to provide sacraments and perform religious ceremonies. The 30-some members provide a cache of handmade sacramental items, including baptismal kits with hand-knitted white stoles, crafted prayer cards and rosaries, as well as decorated travel bottles for holy water. The nonprofit also hosts the national Candle Lighting Ceremony at the hospital, an annual ceremony held in December to remember children who have died during the year. Some parents return from year to year to light a candle for a child, Grefe noted.
The guild was also integral to providing financial and community support for a new, larger chapel in the hospital. Previously, the chapel was the size of a “janitorial closet,” Dinger noted.
The Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Foundation Interfaith Center had its grand opening in 2016, providing a 2,400 square-foot indoor and outdoor place of emotional and spiritual respite located in the hospital’s core center for CHLA patients, families and staff. The center offers colorful alcoves for meditation and prayer, with child-friendly artwork from diverse spiritual traditions creating a large sanctuary with etched windows and a gurgling fountain outside that serves as a meditation garden.
Longtime CHLA supporter and board of trustees member Bonnie McClure, a supporter of the guild and the work it has done for the department, noted how lucky she has felt to watch the transformation of the interfaith center.
“Lots of people, when they’re under enormous pressure and stress, feel a need to reach out in a spiritual way to whomever or whatever they believe in or pray to. I’ve had the pleasure of watching this department grow,” said McClure, noting the interfaith center has been called one of the best hospital chapels in the region.
The guild’s 15-year history and importance were recently saluted by CHLA when it chose the Spiritual Care Department for the Morris and Mary Press Humanism Award, given once a year to individuals and departments that demonstrate compassion, kindness and dedication.
CHLA CEO Paul Viviano praised the department for being a great resource and its members as great team players and ultimately even patient advocates.
“They speak up when they feel that a patient/family’s viewpoint is not considered, and they nurture the continuity of their relationships with families, following their patients from floor to floor,” Viviano said in a statement. “We can’t imagine working here without the insights they bring to us about our families and the support they provide. Whether it’s helping a struggling family combat spiritual distress or it’s facilitating a ritual, they seek to help the parent or child reframe their understanding to allow them to get the most support from their religious beliefs.”
To learn more about Spiritual Care Guild and its support of CHLA’s Spiritual Care Department, visit its website at spiritualcareguild.org.