A ribbon cutting ceremony was held Sept. 7 for the new 2,000 sq. ft. playroom for children of wounded warriors and their families at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC).
To officially celebrate the opening of Austin's Playroom, The Mario Lemieux Foundation, founded by the retired National Hockey League great and current principal owner of his former NHL team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Mario Lemieux and wife, Nathalie, accompanied by their son Austin cut the ribbon.
Austin's playroom, located on Naval Support Activity Bethesda in Tranquility Hall, is an initiative of The Lemieux Project established by Nathalie and Mario in 2000, following their personal experiences while caring for Austin, born prematurely in 1996, weighing just two pounds. The Lemieux family already had two young daughters, and found it difficult to manage the family's time together while in the hospital. It was then that they dreamed of someday helping future families who find themselves in similar situations. Today, Austin is a healthy 15-year-old.
Vice Adm. John M. Mateczun, commander of the Joint Task Force National Capital Region Medical, and Rear Adm. Matthew Nathan, commander, Navy Medicine National Capital Area and WRNMMC, joined the Lemieux family for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
"We in military medicine spend our lives serving those who serve our country, and you are helping to serve those people who serve our country with this contribution," Mateczun said in thanking the Lemieux, their foundation and its contributors who made the playroom possible. "We're extraordinarily appreciative for this gift," he said, and that appreciation will best be reflected in the use of the facility by "the sons and daughters of America, and their sons and daughters," he added.
Mateczun said the country has invested $2.8 billion in hospitals in the National Capital Region "to make sure we're fulfilling our covenant with America's sons and daughters who come back from war." He said WRNMMC and the new Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in northern Virginia, make up the largest infrastructure investment ever made in the military health system, but "it's all about taking care of our patients and being able to serve those who have served." This include not only providing the best primary care, but also the best in housing, lodging and other services, such as family care assistance.
Nathan went on to say, "This, in essence, changes lives," adding his thanks to the Lemieux foundation and its donors for the Austin playroom. "It helps change lives that have been dramatically changed."
Nathan explained the Austin's Playroom is a place dedicated to the welfare and happiness of children of wounded warriors and their families. It can provide a pleasant distraction, and an environment where they can understand a little bit more about what is happening with their dad, mom, uncle, aunt, brother or sister. This room is bright, cheerful, full of life, hope and help.
"We are charged with taking care of the most precious resource of our country the men and women who go in harm's way, sacrifice and give so much to make a difference," Nathan added. "All we are about is giving back to them. All [they] want to do is get back in society and do what they do best, which is hanging with their families and buddies, and if they can, get back to their units and keep making a difference. They want to do it with their families around them, and they want to do it as a team. You've helped allow that."
Nancy Angus, executive director of The Mario Lemieux Foundation later added. "Austin's Warrior Playroom marks a new initiative in the Austin's Playroom Project," she added. "The Mario Lemieux Foundation is proud to join forces with the U.S. military to establish an Austin's Playroom in the new medical center to bring joy and happiness in what otherwise will be a very difficult and stressful situation. We hope this playroom provides comfort, warmth and love for these very special families."
Angus said with the opening of the playroom at WRNMMC, there are now 23 Austin's Playrooms with more in the works. The facility at WRNMMC was built with donations from private individuals and corporations, and is the first established by the Lemieux foundation outside of Pennsylvania and on a military installation.
"Our playrooms provide a calming, comfortable educational environment," Angus said. "They are simply not just play spaces, but rather places where kids can grow emotionally, physically and mentally. We're very conscientious about the way we design our spaces." She explained the playroom at WRNMMC has areas for imaginative and interactive play, as well as toys to enhance children's reading and fine-motor skills. "In addition, we have table-top medical equipment for children to see what their parents are going through. There is also a lovely outdoor play area, which is a complement for children's experiences inside the playroom."
Angus added, "We couldn't have picked a better location to have this room. Helping warriors and their families is directly in line with our mission, and we're thrilled to be here. We believe that a positive hospital experience for a child and the parent is an essential complement to their medical and physical overall healing process."
Tom Grealish, president of the Mario Lemieux foundation, concluded the ceremony by stating, "During [Nathalie's] time in the hospital [following Austin's birth], she realized there was a need to support families who were experiencing medical emergencies in ways that had not been thought of before," Grealish said. "From day one, she has made this effort about the entire family experience. To all wounded warriors and their families, this room is dedicated expressly for you."