“Reaching Out to Kids” Program Builds Lasting Relationships

Feb. 11, 2013
ROK buddies, Michael and Thilan

For the past 16 years, the University of Rochester’s Reaching Out to Kids (ROK) program has paired medical students with pediatric patients at Golisano Children’s Hospital, fostering long-term friendships and community partnerships. The mentorship program matches patients who have chronic medical conditions with medical students — their “buddies.” The program allows the buddies to learn about each other and explore areas in the community that the patients may otherwise not see.

ROK was organized in 1996 by second-year medical students under the guidance of the University of Rochester’s School of Medicine and Dentistry’s community service program, Students of Rochester Outreach (SRO). This year, ROK is being coordinated by two second- year medical students — Ben Cocanougher and Rachel Cameron.

While in the program, the medical students’ main role is to act as a friend to the patients and not a medical provider. It is recommended that buddies spend time together at least once every two weeks or five hours a month.

“As a medical student, it is easy to get caught up trying to memorize the thousands of pages of material we need to learn about disease and, in the meantime, lose focus on the patient,” said Cocanougher. “This program, however, has allowed me to slow down and get to know patients, their families, and their disease, on a more personal level.”

Members of ROK participate in a variety of activities with their buddies, such as going bowling, getting help with homework, and exploring the Rochester community. Many community organizations, including the Seneca Park Zoo, Memorial Art Gallery, and Rochester Museum and Science Center, have opened their doors to ROK members, free of charge.

“Our community partners have been generous enough to sponsor ROK members’ admission fees, which is a great benefit for many of our families with more limited means,” said Thilan Wijesekera, fourth-year medical student and former ROK coordinator. “Families who wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to appreciate Rochester can share in its culturally enriching opportunities with their buddy, further strengthening their unique bond.”

After noticing that Michael, Wijesekera’s 13-year-old buddy of three years, was sketching a variety of detailed images in his notepad, he thought it would be a great idea to expose him to different genres of art. Wijesekera recently brought Michael to the Memorial Art Gallery, a place his buddy had never visited, despite it being across the street from his performing arts school. “After previously discovering graphite and watercolors, Michael and I were able to share in oil paintings, metallic conglomerations, optical illusions, and even ancient mummies,” Wijesekera said. “Michael left the gallery excited – chattering away about the interesting artwork we’d seen and different types of endeavors he might want to pursue in the future.”

Current ROK patients range in age from 5 to 18. Golisano Children’s Hospital staff, including social workers, nurses, and Child Life specialists, choose patient-participants whose parents have expressed interest in Reaching Out to Kids. Patients can come from any pediatric clinic, including Hematology/Oncology, Pulmonary, Endocrine, Renal, Developmental Disorders, etc. Although all patients in the program have chronic medical conditions, some students have been paired with patients who have a terminal illness. Four patients have passed away, causing some of the students to take a leave of absence to help the families make arrangements.

“Reaching Out to Kids has always been about the special bond that a physician-to-be can develop with an ill child and family and how that bond helps the medical student better understand the hardships and sacrifices, as well as the anxieties and fears, that can fill every day of having a serious illness,” said O.J. Sahler, M.D., professor of pediatrics and Reaching Out to Kids faculty mentor. “It’s not unknown for a ROK student to sit by a buddy’s bedside to say goodbye, just like other members of the family.”

ROK has a total of 21 active matches and continues to generate creative programs for participants, including an anticipated tennis clinic for the spring of 2013.“We are eager to see Reaching Out to Kids continue to expand its members and community partnerships and we hope the community will see the students’ work as worthy of its support,” Sahler said.

If your community organization has an idea for an event, or would like to open its doors to members of Reaching Out to Kids, please contact Thilan Wijesekera at or (484) 574-0124.