GRAND RAPIDS — Staying in a hospital overnight is scary for anybody, but it can be terrifying for children.
On Wednesday, more than 125 Zeeland East High School student-athletes and members of Zeeland Fire Rescue spent their night cheering up the children staying at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.
The Chix and Zeeland firefighters participated in Project Night Lights, an initiative started by Silent Observer and the children’s hospital to show the children in the hospital the community is thinking of and supporting them.
On the second Wednesday of every month, police, fire and other emergency personnel park their vehicles outside the children’s hospital and turn on their flashing lights. Other members of the community join in with flashlights and light-up signs, surrounding the hospital in a circle.
In return, the children staying in the hospital peer out their windows at the light show, flashing their own flashlights down at the community in response.
“We all got in a line and waved our flashlights, laughing and having a great time,” said track and field and cross country athlete Emily Macina. “The kids were doing different patterns at us and we were doing them back at them. Even though we couldn’t see their faces, you could tell the kids were loving it.”
Silent Observer Executive Director Chris Cameron said in the 16 months they’ve been putting on Project Night Lights, the Zeeland East group is the largest group of students to ever participate in the heartwarming event.
“We’ve had many different school groups come before, but I don’t think we’ve ever had that many,” Cameron said. “It was great. They lined Michigan (Street), and they were very excited and animated and were doing cheers.”
Project Night Lights is a way for children diagnosed with cancer and other diseases to feel a little love from the community as they and their families deal with long hospital stays and the stress of their situation. But on that one Wednesday night a month, they get to forget about how hard it is to be a sick kid in a hospital.
“It’s a night of magic,” Cameron said. “You have families come out and friends of the patients. The community comes together with first responders and they surround the hospital with love and support. The kids shine back with their flashlights to show they feel the love and everybody’s happy. It’s just a heartwarming event.
“The (kids) look forward to it days in advance, it just means the world to them. The kids aren’t thinking about their ailment at the time, they just think, ‘All these people are out here for me, to make our lives brighter.’”
Along with Silent Observer and the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital child life team, other area agencies like the Grand Rapids Police Department, the Kent County Sheriff’s Office and Shields of Hope West Michigan are frequent participants.
Shields of Hope is a group of first responders that provide support to families suffering through a cancer diagnosis in West Michigan. Chad Lynema, a Zeeland Fire Services captain, is the president of the organization.
Lynema told Zeeland East’s athletic director, Josh Glerum, about Project Night Lights when the two sat down to talk about a Shields of Hope football game fundraiser the students will participate in later this month.
“I think it’s really good for the students to get involved and give back for those guys in the hospital,” Lynema said. “Hopefully it showed them to be thankful for what they’ve got because not everybody is as lucky.”
The Zeeland East students who participated volunteered to go, and filled up three full buses.
“I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity for our student-athletes,” Glerum said. “I put it out to our coaches and the next thing you know, we had three buses going over there, and it was a nice little mix of all the sports teams.”
Lynema said he was glad students from different sports could unite as a Zeeland community.
“It makes me so happy just because I am very fortunate to be an athlete and not worry about the health of my body,” said Macina. “My heart is so heavy for the kids that have to spend so much time at the hospital but you can tell they love the lights so much, so it just makes me very joyful that I have that ability.
“To be able to say you did something for bigger than yourself is really cool.”
Cameron said the Zeeland students are welcome back any time.
One of the football players, Brendan Duneghy, said as a former patient at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, it was humbling to be able to bring joy to the children inside.
“I’ve been one of those kids in Helen DeVos for my appendix, and I know what it means for them to feel like they have some supporters outside,” said Duneghy, a defensive lineman at Zeeland East.
“It was just joy, knowing they’re shining their lights back and they’ve still got some heart in them. You don’t know what they’re going through and they’re still fighting.”
For those wishing to participate in upcoming Project Night Lights, information about where to park and meet is available at spectrumhealth.org/foundation.
Some months have themes, like red lights for Valentine’s Day or gold for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
Once, when the hospital received a donation of 400 light-up lightsabers, the event was Star Wars themed. Specific information about each month’s event can be found on Silent Observer’s Facebook page.
The next Project Night Lights starts at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 13.
— Contact editor Audra Gamble at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @SentinelAudra.