Portland children's hospital's patient tutoring program gets funding jolt

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PORTLAND — It’s cramped, and it caters to students learning everything from the basics of reading to trigonometry.

And now the classroom on the sixth floor corner in the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center may be fully funded and supplied, with the Jan. 15 launch of a $250,000 endowment fund created by area Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owners.

“I truly think it gives (patients) an incentive to get better,” hospital-based teacher Abby Snyder said as the endowment was announced.

Snyder was a veteran city school teacher who said she aspired to teach at the hospital after one of her students was diagnosed with leukemia.

That happened so long ago the student is now in remission and attending college. But the benefits of keeping students connected and learning during hospital stays remained vivid for Snyder.

“He was my inspiration,” she said. “I had it in the back of my mind this was really something I wanted to pursue.”

A certified K-8 teacher, Snyder has been at the hospital for three years. She said she relies on volunteer Anthony King to work with high-schoolers on lessons in higher math and languages.

“He has the math brain I don’t,” Snyder joked.

School work can be done in the classroom or in patients’ rooms. It may involve going through assignments sent in by teachers, or using a visual and verbal link to a classroom through Skype.

For Bowdoin resident Riley Robertson, now in the eighth grade at Mt. Ararat Middle School, her work with Snyder became a lifeline she has yet to release.

“It brought a sense of normality at a very abnormal time,” she recalled of her twice-daily sessions with Snyder when Robertson was in fifth grade.

A neurological condition left her legs paralyzed and required a sudden, 6 1/2-week hospital stay.

“It was like a whole bunch of sick days,” Robertson said, until she realized “(her classmates) were learning and I wasn’t learning anything.”

Her sessions included online visits with classmates who would dress up for the occasion with assigned colors, or all wearing sunglasses.

“Even though I wasn’t there, I was still there,” Robertson said.

Riley’s mother, Brandy Robertson, recalled both the fear of her daughter’s illness and the way she was able to keep up in school.

“One day she stood before like normal. The next day she was paralyzed from the waist down,” Brandy said. “When she walked (back) into the classroom, it was like she never left.”

Dr. Lorraine McElwain, the hosptal’s assistant chief of pediatrics, said there can be as many as 20 school-age children staying at the hospital at any given time. Most stay between one and four days, with “a handful” admitted for as long as four weeks.

She said the daily lessons are valued.

“You might think it’s mean,” McElwain said, “but kids actually like it.”

A hospital-based teacher has been available for 23 years. Sarah Sterne, the children’s hospital development manager, said local school systems are required to provide educational services during hospital stays, but the teacher’s salary was often picked up by the hospital.

Kim Garrett, who owns Dunkin’ Donuts franchises in Portland, Westbrook and Gorham, said supporting the teaching program was an easy choice for her after she and her son made frequent visits to Barbara Bush to visit a friend who has cystic fibrosis.

The endowment will be funded this year with $1 from every sale of iced coffee on May 20. Donations to the endowment can also be made directly, care of the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital Development Office, 22 Bramhall St., Portland, ME 04102.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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“I truly think it gives (patients) an incentive to get better,” teacher Abby Snyder said Jan. 15 about the tutoring program for patients at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Snyder works in a hospital classroom or in patients’ rooms.

Riley Robertson, now an eighth-grader at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham, said the tutoring she received three years ago at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland helped her recover from paralysis in her lower body. “It brought a sense of normality at a very abnormal time,” she said.

Teacher Abby Snyder, left, and former student Riley Robertson share a moment Jan. 15 after the announcement of a $250,000 endowment fund the tutoring program at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.