'I bring Jesus to the children every day'

The chaplain supporting families with complex disabilities and health needs

48-year-old hospital chaplain Rochelle Wainwright is doing what she loves most: banging on a toy drum to the beat of a Colin Buchanan kids’ song. Three-year-old Lucas Thompson sits beside her. His eyes light up as his favourite tune – 10,9,8 God is Great – comes on the CD player behind them. Rochelle picks up the xylophone and dings alongside Lucas, who keeps the beat on the drum.

Lucas is a regular at Allowah Presbyterian children’s hospital in Dundas, in Sydney’s north-west – a hospital for children with complex disabilities and health needs.

While Lucas is not an inpatient in one of the hospital’s 44 beds, he uses many of the disability support services it offers. He attends speech pathology, occupational therapy and physiotherapy sessions at the hospital (as well as having these therapists visit his home).

“It’s hard for these families to find people who will stick by them for the long haul.” – Rochelle Wainwright

Lucas’s mum often attends ‘My Time’ at Allowah, where the kids are minded while their parents enjoy a brief window to connect with each other.

“Sometimes, myself included, we can be a bit short-sighted about the challenges that some of these families face who have a child with complex disabilities and health needs,” says Rochelle.

“For some of these families, these children will have these complex health needs for the whole of their life. And often the families are dealing with complex grief, and anticipatory grief of their child dying. It’s hard for these families to find people who will stick by them for the long haul …

“They need people who will sit with them and listen to the same challenges they face again and again, and provide empathy and compassion, and for Christian support in that space.”

This is precisely what Rochelle has been doing three days a week at Allowah for the past six years since she was employed as a chaplain with Jericho Road Presbyterian Social Services. On the remaining two days a week, Rochelle is a chaplain at Westmead Children’s Hospital in western Sydney. She comes to these jobs from a background in nursing, followed by bible college and eight years in school ministry.

“My role looks very different in both hospitals. Because Allowah is a Presbyterian children’s hospital, I have the opportunity to bring Jesus to the children every day. And I am able to do that one-on-one with the kids,” Rochelle enthuses.

“The children here at Allowah really engage with God – through their senses, through what they can see and touch. So I try to think of creative ways that we can bring Jesus to the children here.”

She gives examples: “It might be walking out in the garden with the kids, looking at God’s creation, looking at the birds and reminding them of the God who made those trees.

“When the wind blows, reminding them of the God who made the wind that they can feel on their face. Picking some of the flowers from our sensory garden and then bringing those flowers over for them to be able to smell and also feel, and reminding them of the God who made those flowers and reminding them of the God who made them.”

“When you have a child who is sick in hospital, parents can often think that Jesus doesn’t love them anymore. They can think that they’re being punished …” – Rochelle Wainwright

Rochelle often uses Christian resources to express Jesus’ love to children in the hospital and to their families. On the day that Eternity visits Allowah, she has just received reprinted versions of her very favourite book Because Jesus Loves Me – provided free (along with other books, Bibles and CDs) through a Bible Society Australia Scripture Grant.

“It’s the only book I can find that talks about everything that Jesus has done for us and then ends with a lovely page that has a mirror on it …

“For a child who is stuck in a cot in the hospital, attached to a drip and can’t walk around or go anywhere, often I open this book to the last page straight away. When they look at themselves, it will stop them crying. It makes them happy. And then parents can read the book with them.”

This simple resource has also provided a way for Rochelle to connect with parents.

“When you have a child who is sick in hospital, parents can often think that Jesus doesn’t love them anymore. They can think that they’re being punished – that their child is sick and that’s God’s punishment to them for how they’ve lived their life, that maybe they’ve sinned or something.

“So if a parent reads this book to their child about how Jesus loves them, they get to that last page [that says] ‘who does Jesus love? Me!’

“I reckon there would be a tear in the eye for those parents when they read that. They’re not just reading to their child; they’re reading to themselves. They are reminded that Jesus took the punishment for their sins on the cross, that their child isn’t facing what they are facing because they are being punished by God, and that Jesus loved them enough to die for them.

“Then that’s an opportunity for chaplains to engage with parents in that space.”

In addition to using resources like this book in the hospital, Rochelle also gives them to families to take home.

“It’s putting God’s words into the hands of parents in the hardest of times,” she says. “I’m very thankful for that because as a chaplain, you sit with families and you listen to them and their pain and their story, and you provide pastoral care in that space. But often when [families] are in a state of fear, stress, grief, shock, all of those emotions, they might forget what I’ve said because they’re overwhelmed. But if I can give them a bible resource, then they’ve got that to go back to.”

Lucas and Rochelle get stuck into some music-making

Lucas and Rochelle get stuck into some music making

Music is another key tool for Rochelle, and other Allowah staff and volunteers, to connect with the children and share the gospel with them. Before COVID-19, several local church groups came into the hospital to deliver a weekly kids’ church service.

“Families who have a child in hospital, especially if their child has a chronic condition, often haven’t been able to get to church. And so they felt very disconnected from their church community,” explains Rochelle.

“So we love to be able to bring church to the kids here. We would have a kids’ church group coming on a Saturday or a Sunday each week, and they would bring their guitars and piano skills to play songs about Jesus for the kids to enjoy.

“The church groups very much come with a sense that the kids here were part of their church.”

This is one of best parts of Rochelle’s job at Allowah, she says – “seeing the kids’ eyes light up when they do kids’ church”.

“I love hearing them hum familiar songs like Jesus Loves Me or being able to choose between [the Colin Buchanan songs] 10, 9, 8 and Who is the King of the Jungle?. I love that they recognise the songs enough to be able to have that choice. Because for me, that’s them connecting with Jesus. I especially love seeing the kids connect with Jesus and with God’s people.”

After a whole year without these volunteers (due to COVID restrictions), church teams were allowed back into the hospital again just before Easter.

“It was a time of such joy for the children in the hospital to see their volunteer church friends in person again, and to be able to sing, not just listen to, songs about what Jesus has done for us! There were big smiles on the faces of the children and staff alike, and tears of joy on this chaplain’s face,” Rochelle enthuses.

“I do see the children that I come alongside at Allowah as my children. I love watching them grow … and engage with Jesus.” – Rochelle Wainwright

Another favourite aspect of Rochelle’s job is seeing the progress in children’s abilities and the difference this makes in their lives.

“We love the children that God has made, the children that God brings here. We want them to have a quality life and enable them to develop their skills and abilities so that they can be the people God created them to be.

“And so we get very excited when they are able to do new things,” she says.

Today, she’s marvelling over how well Lucas has learnt to walk during his physiotherapist sessions.

She doesn’t have children herself, and so Rochelle says, “In many ways I do see the children that I come alongside at Allowah as my children. I love watching them grow … and engage with Jesus.”

One of the most challenging parts of Rochelle’s role, she says, is “walking alongside families when their child is dying”.

“It is heartbreaking to see the grief that families go through. And it is humbling to be welcomed into that space of them saying goodbye to their child on this earth. And it is a privilege to be able to walk alongside them and provide pastoral care to them.”

In being a physical, pastoral presence for these families, Rochelle hopes to “remind them that God is with them and to be providing comfort and strength and hope from God’s word.”

“Seeing parents cling onto promises and passages from the Bible as they are preparing to say goodbye to their child, makes you just feel such awe towards God, because you’re very aware that God is who they need at that time. And [it makes you] so thankful that God has spoken to us in his word, and that his word does provide comfort and strength and hope when they’re saying goodbye to their child,” she reflects.

“I’m so thankful that God will continue to be there for them as they grieve for their child for the rest of their lives while looking forward to meeting them in eternity. That hope of eternity is a very key thing that brings hope to families.”

“Allowah exists because of the churches, community groups and schools that support it. Financially, that’s how Allowah continues to be able to provide quality care to the families of children with complex disabilities and health needs who access the hospital,” says Rochelle.

Learn more about and support the work of Allowah here.

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