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Spreading Sunshine

by Katie O’Sullivan

Most days, Cynthia Robotham works at a desk as the Volunteer Coordinator for Beacon Hospice’s Yarmouthport office. But once a month, she dons her costume and heads out on a mission to spread sunshine and smiles across Cape Cod.

She’s one of the Sunflower Sisters.

Sunflower Sisters Cynthia & Georgia
Sunflower Sisters Cynthia & Georgia

The Sunflower Sisters visit hospice patients suffering from end-stage dementia and Alzheimer’s. They bring smiles to patients’ faces at various Cape Cod nursing and assisted living centers, lifting spirits from the Bourne Manor Extended Care Facility all the way down to Seashore Point in Provincetown.

It started about a year ago, when one of Cynthia’s volunteers came to her with an idea. Georgia Williams, a pediatric nurse who volunteers for Beacon, wanted to try a “hospital clown” program with the hospice patients.

Cynthia wasn’t sure that clowns would work with dementia patients for a number of reasons, but remembered something similar from the Communicating with Compassion video she uses in her volunteer training classes. The videos are produced by Karen and Simon Fox in California, who also created the Adventures in Caring program in 1984.

The California volunteers dress as Raggedy Ann and Andy to visit nursing homes and hospitals, spending time with critically ill patients. Cynthia called to discuss her ideas with Simon Fox, who sounded excited about extending the program to dementia patients. The funding wasn’t available to send Beacon volunteers to California to undergo the training, but Cynthia wasn’t willing to let go of the idea.

Katie O’Sullivan is the Editor and a contributing writer of this magazine. She lives in Harwich with her husband, three children and two large dogs.

In addition to reporting and editing, she writes contemporary fiction. Her first suspense novel, "Unfolding the Shadows", was released October 1, 2009 from Cerridwen Press. Visit Katie at her website or visit her blog.

Cynthia decided to start her own program.

She enlisted her friend and local seamstress June Eldredge to create costumes at her shop, Rags and String (23 Jarves Street, Sandwich.) The outfits consist of cheery blue sunflower-covered dresses, white aprons with sunflowers embroidered on them, and straw hats.

Once a month, the Sunflower Sisters make their rounds. The Sisters greet each patient with a smile, handing out small tokens like fabric sunflowers with smiley faces, or beanie babies. “The response is just incredible,” says Cynthia.

The Sunflower Sisters with Helen
The Sunflower Sisters with Helen

Patients who interact with them, or even just see the Sunflower Sisters, show a visible lift in their moods. “The costume, the look, engages people and they perk up. It’s not a show, we don’t sing and dance,” she explains. “We go in and reach out to people. It’s the gentle touch and the eye contact that comfort the patients.”

The Sunflower Sisters with Trudy
The Sunflower Sisters with Trudy

Cynthia would love to see the program expand over time, and have more pairs of Sunflower Sisters visiting Cape Cod patients. “As a volunteer coordinator, I feel like I’m a privileged person. I get to meet so many wonderful and energetic people.” She’s sure there are other “Sunflower Sisters” out there.

Beacon Hospice serves patients in the last six months of their lives, with goals of reducing pain and symptoms as well as making patients’ lives as comfortable and fulfilling as possible.

For more information about Beacon Hospice and/or the Sunflower Sisters, please call their Yarmouthport office at 508-778-1625.

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