Community support drives growth of Austin’s Playrooms that serve as an oasis for pediatric patients

PITTSBURGH — Over the last 25 years, children’s playrooms inside local hospitals have touched thousands and thousands of lives. They’re called Austin’s Playrooms and are named after Mario and Nathalie Lemieux’s son. He spent about 71 days in the NICU when he was born.

The play space makes a difference for pediatric patients, like Carson, and their families.

Three-year-old Carson is resilient. His parents call him their hero.

“You never think it could be your child until one day doctors come in and say your son has cancer,” said Christina Schaberl, from Johnsonburg.

“Hits you like a ton of bricks,” Cody Schaberl said.

“It really does,” Christina said. “I’ll never forget that day. It was the hardest day of my life.”

That day was January 5, 2024. Carson was diagnosed with neuroblastoma.

“He hates coming to the hospital, but as soon as he knows he can come to the playroom he’s like okay I want to go to Pittsburgh,” Christina said.

This passion project was born 25 years ago at UPMC Magee Women’s Hospital. Nathalie Lemieux’s personal commitment to make the lives of other families just a little bit easier.

“Thank you so much for your support of Austin’s Playroom,” Nathalie Lemieux said.

More than 400 people showed up to raise money for Austin’s Playrooms annual luncheon including Austin, who inspired it all, and his dad.

“Throughout playrooms, we allow children to be children,” Austin Lemieux said. “Our success would not be possible without the unwavering support of individuals like you. Your generosity, kindness and commitment to our cause has always been the driving force behind our continued growth and impact. As we celebrate 25 years of Austin’s Playrooms, let us reflect on the lives touched, the smiles shared and the hope instilled. And let us look forward to knowing that together we can continue to make a difference in children’s lives.”

Besides Western Pennsylvania, there are Austin’s Playrooms in Maryland, North Carolina and even California. Soon, the 45th playroom will open at WVU Medicine Children’s Northern Region Outpatient Center in Morgantown.

“What could have been a sad time really ended up being a time of happiness for our other children who went there every day,” Stephanie Pham said.

Austin’s Playrooms aren’t just for the children fighting for their lives. Just like in little Sammi’s case, they’re a place of comfort for the entire family.

“Looking back, I can’t imagine not having the playroom available to us because, you know, she ended up having a 268-day NICU stay,” Pham said.

But now, just about 18 months later, a lot has changed.

“She’s an adaptive typical toddler, and she’s thriving,” Pham said.

“We’ve spent thousands of hours here,” Christina said. “It’s our home away from home.”

The new playroom in West Virginia is slated to open late in 2025. It is expected to see about 4,000 kids a year — and that’s just one playroom.

“It makes him so much happier,” Cody said. “If they didn’t have this playroom, he’d be stuck in his room laying in his bed all day.”

“We’ve met so many people in these playrooms,” Christina said. “We’ve made friends some of them we consider family now.”

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