More than 400 children visit Woodridge Hospital each year, and often they need clothing, school supplies or even their preferred brand of shampoo to make a difference in their treatment.
But all those things cost money, and while the hospital provides most everything patients need, there are gaps to fill, as students at East Tennessee State University’s College of Medicine noticed a few years ago while participating in rotations at the psychiatric hospital. So a few of the students organized a fundraiser for the Willow Unit, the children’s wing of Woodridge.
That was four years ago, said Leslie Fitzgerald, a fourth-year medical student, who headed up the Laughing Willows Fundraiser for her final time.
“We were talking about how blessed we really are here,” Fitzgerald said of forming the plan for a fundraiser. “Where much is given, much is required.”
The first year the students took up money, lightly used items, toiletries and other useful things to give to the child patients at Woodridge, which is operated by Mountain States Health Alliance.
The second year a chili lunch was started for $5 a ticket. This year’s lunch was held this past week at the college.
Those who come to taste the chili (as much as they wanted) were entered into a raffle for prizes as an incentive to attend. The prizes came from all over the community.
The first year the effort raised about $2,900. Since then the chili lunches have garnered about $1,000 each year for the benefit of the children’s unit at Woodridge. Donations come in too.
Woodridge is the only psychiatric hospital in a 100-mile radius, so sometimes parents of patients may not be able to come immediately with their children to the facility and bring all the necessary items they’ll need to stay there for the standard five to seven days.
Laurie Street, nurse manager at the Willow Unit, said the children’s wing has 12 beds for patients ages 6 to 18, as long as they are still in school.
Between 35 and 40 children come through the unit each month. Most patients there are 15 or 16 and are dealing with a range of issues, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, destructive behavior, anxiety, depression and psychosis.
Oftentimes the children at Woodridge have been bullied, Street said.
She was grateful for the fundraiser conducted by the medical school students. This is the only fundraiser conducted on behalf of the Willow Unit.
“It’s just wonderful to be able to get them things that maybe their parents can’t provide while they’re here, somebody can’t get to them,” Street said. “It’s been a great help. We have a lot of kids come in, they may just have the clothes on their back so... (with money from the fundraiser) I can run and get them... sweats and different items of clothing for the kids, underwear, whatever they may need, if they don’t have those available or a parent that can bring them to them.”
A couple weekends ago, Street used a gift card to buy shampoo and body wash for some of the teenage girls. Street said it wasn’t as though the hospital did not provide soap, but it’s not the shampoo and conditioner a teenage girl necessarily wants to use on her hair.
“It’s nice to be able, for these girls with long hair, to get them conditioner and soap, so we can do a little extra stuff and it makes their stay better here,” Street said.
Cory Werkheiser is the teacher at Woodridge responsible for continuing the education of the children while they are in treatment. Because of the age range of the patients, Werkheiser can be teaching simple addition and subtraction or trigonometry, or any kind of science or any period of history on any given day.
“Some kids don’t have school supplies, so we’ll try to send them out with a notebook and some paper and folders and pencils and pens,” Werkheiser said. “You know, those things can be really helpful if they’re coming from somewhere where they didn’t have that before.”
The fundraiser helps with these supplies and items for Werkheiser’s classroom, including a printer last year.
Both Street and Werkheiser said they thoroughly enjoyed their jobs in the Willow Unit. Street prefers working with children.
“I think you can really make a big difference when they’re younger,” she said. “I feel like we do make a difference, and not that we don’t in our adults, but I think there’s more of a chance, you feel like anyway, when they’re younger. And they just seem to thrive here.”