Photo by Stephanie Garr Adams, courtesy Noah’s Children
When she met the 43rd president's daughter, 7-year-old Samara "Sam" Dillard couldn't look into her eyes, but she held Jenna Bush Hager's hand while they talked.
Sam, who lost her sight after surgery to remove a brain tumor, talked with Hager during a March 24 fundraiser at The Westin Richmond for Noah's Children, a local pediatric palliative care and hospice program. An NBC Today contributing correspondent and UNICEF Next Generation chair, Hager was the sold-out event's keynote speaker.
"Sam's still talking about it," says her mother, Dorine Dillard, a South Richmond resident who works as a ward clerk at the McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center. "She liked her. She says she's got a new friend." Dillard says that Hager asked about the family's experience with Noah's Children, something they are eager to share. The nonprofit organization has been working with the family since the fall of 2008, when Sam returned home from a two-month stay at Kluge Children's Rehabilitation Center in Charlottesville after undergoing chemotherapy to shrink her tumor, an optic glioma, and then surgery to remove it.
"She wouldn't eat, so we had a feeding tube in place," says Dillard, a single mom. "I was trying to get nursing help so I could go back to work." Sam, who suffered a stroke, also has weakness in her right side and uses a wheelchair. Noah's Children sent nurses to check Sam's vital signs and medications, and psychologists to counsel her two older brothers. The organization arranged for Sam to have music therapy at school and sent her brothers to summer camp. Its volunteers also provided Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas gifts.
Founded 15 years ago by Richmond pediatrician Bob Archuleta, Noah's Children works with 60 to 70 families at any given time. The organization has been affiliated since 2007 with the Bon Secours Health System, which provides office space at the St. Mary's Hospital complex, covers administrative and personnel costs and manages fundraising through the Bon Secours Health Care Foundation. Despite the affiliation, 40 percent of the patients and families and patients assisted by Noah's Children come from the VCU Medical Center, 30 percent from CJW Medical Center and 30 percent from Bon Secours, Archuleta says.
"We provide for pain and symptom management, disease and medication management." he adds. "We're there to help support the health care system."
Money raised by events such as the March gala, which brought in a record $202,000, is used to provide direct services for families who have children with life-threatening conditions. Archuleta estimates that there are 2,500 children in Central Virginia who could benefit from Noah's Children's services. He says the Bon Secours foundation wants to raise funds for a $3.5 million endowment to ensure that those services will be available. "Until we are taking care of every child and family living with a life-threatening illness," he says, "we have to keep growing."