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SBU student founds Project Sunshine chapter on campus

Most seniors at Stony Brook have one thing on their minds: getting their final semesters and projects over with so they can show off the cap and gown they have worked four years to wear. But while his second to last semester comes to a close, Mohammed Naeem, a senior health science major, has only one main project on his mind: Project Sunshine.

Mohammed Naeem founded Project Sunshine at SBU. Photo Courtesy: Project Sunshine
Mohammed Naeem founded Project Sunshine at SBU. Photo Courtesy: Project Sunshine

According to Naeem, Project Sunshine is a nonprofit organization offering social, educational and recreational programs to sick children that are stuck in a hospital environment. The Project Sunshine website states that these activities can range from arts and crafts to reading books to the children, or even providing the parents with a spa day. According to the website, Project Sunshine helps children in 150 cities in the United States, as well as in Puerto Rico, Israel, Kenya, China and Canada.

Naeem is the founder of the Project Sunshine Chapter at Stony Brook and stumbled upon the organization in a unique way. “In the fall of my junior year, I had a gap on my Tuesday schedule,” he explained. “I tried to look for a class and eventually found one called CAR 210, which is a career builder class. We had a list of 20 books and had to chose one of them,” Naeem said.

He chose a book titled “One Person/ Multiple Careers,” written by Marci Alboher. Inside the book, Joseph Weilgus, the founder of Project Sunshine was mentioned. “I googled it and found out it’s a non-for profit that helps children and their families that face medical challenges,” Naeem said.

Naeem contacted Project Sunshine’s head offices and discovered there was no active chapter of Project Sunshine at Stony Brook. After giving it some thought, he decided to change that and, in the spring of 2012, he started operations. “There was such a need for quality programming,” Naeem said.

The Project Sunshine chapter is the first organization on campus that links both the undergraduate west campus and the medical east campus together. “Between the undergraduate body and the medical sides of our campus. I felt that if you have a quality program, that it will promote outreach and communication building,” he explained.

Being a part of the medical programs on campus, Naeem said that sometimes it is hard for students to remember why they chose that field.

“We are so tuned to that next exam, or getting that next A. You lose sight of the fact as to why you do it,” he explained. “In regards to Project Sunshine, it helps you realize why you do what you do. It’s really for the patients.”

Here at Stony Brook, the Project Sunshine Chapter works hand in hand with the Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. Every Wednesday at the hospital, the chapter holds ‘Project Sunshine Day’ for the sick children. On Thursdays, Project Sunshine provides the parents with a knitting support group. According to Naeem, the volunteers learn how to knit and then teach the parents. Project Sunshine also hosts events at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital called ‘Sending Sunshine Events.’ Volunteers work together on these days to create items for the kids.

“We make items, like craft kits, friendship bracelets, surgi dolls; which are dolls for kids to play with so they can see what kind of surgery they’re getting and personalized cards for kids,” Naeem explained. “We take those items and send them to children all over the country.”

Naeem explained that in a hospital environment, children are left with little choice. “It is absolutely imperative to give the child choice. We ask them, ‘What do you want to do?’ It can range from carving a pumpkin with an 8-year-old to playing video games with a 17-year-old.

His most memorable experience on the job dates back to only four weeks ago, when he got a call from Mt. Sinai Hospital, located in New York City. “There are four chapters in New York City…but they called our chapter in Stony Brook, 70 miles away,” Naeem explained. The hospital asked the Stony Brook Project Sunshine chapter to do one of their special programs, ‘Star for a Day,’ for a 17-year-old boy.

“The program is geared entirely to the likes of that child; what that child likes to eat, what that child likes to do, it’s to make them feel special,” He said. Naeem smiled when he recalled the day. “It was an absolutely phenomenal experience,” he said.

The chapter spent a few hours with the boy, showering him gifts of all his favorite things. “I still get the chills when I think about that day because of how brave he was,” he said.

“What we found out was that he was waiting on the heart transplant list. Every second that he was alive, he was essentially dying. And to see that he was smiling more than I have smiled in a month, it made me realize how effective what we do at Project Sunshine really is,” Naeem said.

Along with Naeem, there are five board members that dedicate their time to making Project Sunshine the best it can be. The faculty supervisor, Catherine Marrone, is in her second year as supervisor and is proud of the progress the program has made. “I have been amazed not only at how much he and his organization have done but how many connections they have made to individuals outside the campus through their work and outreach,” she explained. “I can take no credit for the incredible success of this organization–it all goes to Mohammed, who just works tirelessly and passionately and somehow– with endless joy and optimism–he is a treasure to this university and I think, well beyond.”

As for Naeem’s future, he will be graduating in May and will take a few years off. “I want to do things besides medicine, I want to work with maybe impoverished kids in inner city communities, I want to do something besides the nuts and bolts of science,” he said.

He said he wants to get a job, perhaps for another non-profit organization, and begin a Project Sunshine Chapter in his hometown of Flushing in Queens, N.Y.

After Naeem leaves Stony Brook, the organization will continue to help children with medical disadvantages. “I think Project Sunshine will remain one of the best organizations on this campus. if not, the best most well-rounded program.” He explained.

Project Sunshine has 18 members currently and Naeem plans for it to increase beyond 20. “The future is looking really sunny,” He laughed.

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