The road to recovery for hospital patients does not run through the great outdoors, but a local outreach program wants to change that by bringing pieces of the natural world to the pediatric ward.

Wonder Connection is a donor-funded initiative that pairs the resources of the North Carolina Botanical Garden with the needs of local Ronald McDonald Houses and the UNC Children’s Hospital.

Program Manager Katie Stoudemire was present at that hospital on Tuesday to unveil a mock butterfly garden designed for pediatric patients that cannot stray far from their primary care teams.

“We wanted to incorporate lots of choices for kids who are able to come to this event because they don’t get a lot of choices when they’re in-patient,” she explained.

“We have craft activities, we have science activities […] and some kids are too sick to come, and we created to-go kits for them.”

A pediatric patient walks down a simulated nature trail at UNC Children’s Hospital. Photo by Bruce Rosenbloom/WCHL.

According to Amelia Summerell, a strategy consultant with UNC Health Care, the garden was born from a desire to give patients a window to a world beyond the monochromatic medical complex.

“Part of what we wanted to do with our community service efforts was to see the actual reason we’re in healthcare, which is to help people,” she noted.

“We got in touch with Wonder Connection and they were excited about trying a group activity with us and came up with the butterfly idea, and we thought that was great.”

Children in attendance were treated to a vibrant faux jungle decked with flying insects, colorful plants and activity stations intended to showcase earthly wonders that are inaccessible to patients.

“It feels like they’re outside in the woods looking for insects, which is exactly what we wanted; we wanted to make them feel like part of their day was not in a hospital,” Summerell relayed.

Patients were also able to exercise their creativity at a painting station manned by Ben Clark, a hospital staff member who was delighted to be supporting a program that perks up the infirmed.

“I feel like a lot of our work is very big-picture, and it’s great to actually get to impact patients’ lives in a more concrete way, and to see their smiles is really wonderful,” he offered.

More than half of the pediatric patients served by Wonder Connection have compromised immune systems and serious medical conditions that include cystic fibrosis, cancer and sickle cell anemia.

The program was started by Stoudemire in 2006 with a grant from the Oak Foundation to provide natural science activities to patients that have limited access to the outside world.

Photo by Bruce Rosenbloom/WCHL.