It may seem a little early to be talking about the holidays, but an organization that does some of the toughest work in the area needs to think ahead.
The Elf Squad is a program of Capital Caring Health, which provides palliative and hospice care for the entire region, including kids.
“Caring for kids is not something that typically, a lot of hospices do,” says Katherine Knoble, the director of community and volunteer engagement at Capital Caring Health. “But we provide care for everyone from pediatrics to geriatrics, and we also provide care for anyone, even if they cannot afford the care. As a nonprofit, we take that very seriously.”
Hospice itself is a little different from the norm in health care. “Most health care, you’re focused on the patient,” Knoble says. “We still do that, but we’re looking at the whole family unit. And that’s even more so when you’re talking about pediatric care. Siblings — it’s a very, very difficult thing to see siblings go through this journey with their brother or sister; you know, there’s a lot of fear about their own mortality then.”
She adds, “Our health care professionals are able to navigate and support that throughout the journey of that family.”
Some of the support they provide is based on practical needs, Knoble says. A mother with several children, including one in hospice care, can get pretty tired at the end of the day. “Maybe she’s not up to doing that birthday party for that child,” Knoble says. “Well, then our pediatric committee just comes in says, ‘Mom, don’t worry about that. We got this.’”
How It Started
The Elf Squad began in 2021, says Joanne Canellos, a volunteer and the chair of the pediatric volunteer committee for Capital Caring Kids. When it was over, “We thought, ‘Well, we can’t stop here; we’ve got to do this year-round.” Now they and their crew of volunteers help mark birthdays and milestones as well as the holidays.
“We can’t change the diagnosis, but we can go in for 30 minutes, an hour, two hours, and just bring that moment of smiles to these families,” Canellos says.
“Some of the families want a big sort of experience-type birthday,” Canellos adds; “Well, we will dress up in costume — princesses and superheroes and whatever they like. And then other families just prefer the quiet drop off, which is totally fine.” (She can’t resist dropping in the fact that Knoble makes a pretty mean Easter Bunny herself.)
Canellos recalled a family that had gone on a Make-A-Wish trip to Florida, and somehow, the photos of the patient with her favorite Disney characters had been lost. The Elf Squad bought Mulan-themed costumes so the family could re-create the pictures for the patient and the siblings.
“So we’re trying, going forward, to kind of find those moments of what, specifically, these families are needing or not necessarily requesting.” Social workers are a great resource for letting Capital Caring know what families really want: “’This is what I heard; can we make it happen?’ And we never say no; we always want to make it happen as best we can.”
Sometimes it’s as simple as reading to kids. A lot of children got behind with reading during the COVID-19 pandemic, and sometimes parents get exhausted. “So our volunteers will come in and read to siblings, they will read to the patient,” Canellos says. “The birthday party is great; it’s really fun, but the day-to-day grind of caring for someone who’s ill, that’s where volunteers can come in, and really help a lot.”
How to Help
The Capital Caring Kids Elf Squad collects and distributes holiday gifts to patients and families. It distributed over 700 gifts totaling more than $13,000 last year.
And they’re “always looking for the kind soul who is able to do this work, like Joanne and other volunteers,” Knoble says.
“They go through an extensive training program here at Capital Caring; they’re supported the whole way through,” she adds. “And then they can make these deliveries and dress up as Elmo and every other crazy thing that we do.”
It’s tough work, Knoble says, but it’s rewarding. “In the midst of tragedy you can find joy, and you can find humor. And that’s what our volunteers are able to do.”
Feature image courtesy the Elf Squad
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