Pediatric care center in San Leandro expands reach to support more children

A specialized medical care center for children is growing the number of children it can care for.

Nestled in the hills of San Leandro, George Mark Children’s House sits on five acres near Interstate 580 and Foothill Boulevard. It’s a peaceful escape for families with children with chronic or terminal medical conditions.

Michelle Gherlone first learned about George Mark Children’s House through a friend. Her daughter Molly was diagnosed with a rare chromosomal abnormality called Angelman’s Syndrome shortly after Molly’s first birthday. Molly had seizures, vision limitations and was non-verbal. The Gherlone family would take Molly to George Mark for respite care.

"Molly would participate in music therapy, aquatic therapy, she just loved it," Gherlone said. "She couldn’t vocalize how much she loved it but when we would drive up the hill her legs would be kicking and she would be smiling."

GMCH provides round the clock nursing care, meals for families and staff, art therapy, music therapy, animal therapy, aquatic therapy and more.

CEO Shekinah Eliassen said the house is designed to make each day extraordinary for the children that are there. Eliassen have a very personal connection to GMCH.

"I’m a bereaved mom," she said. "Our son Lars died here 11 years ago, and we spent his last nine precious days here staying at the house in one of the family suites."

Lars had a condition called Polymicrogyria, which is caused by abnormal development of the brain before birth. Eliassen said Lars loved aquatic therapy due to the seizures he experienced from the condition.

After Lars passed, Eliassen stayed connected to GMCH and later became a board member in 2020 while working and living with her family in London. Then she received a call last year asking if she would take on the role of CEO of GMCH.

"In life you don’t always get calls like that, we felt Lars was calling us back to the Bay Area," she said.

After one year in her new role, Eliassen has helped increase the staffing and nursing care to double the number of children they can care for, from four to eight. And Eliassen loves to walk the same grounds she did with Lars.

"The hummingbirds really captured his eyes and attention," she said. "So now we always say, ‘Lars is here.’ I see those hummingbirds almost every day."

The recently launched Hummingbird Project aims to expand GMCH services by raising a million dollars before the end of the year.

"We’re about three quarters of the way there and we’re hoping that this weekend at our gala we will be able to generate a lot more funds to support the families," Eliassen said.

The center is also focused on providing holistic care for families after the death of a child.

"Molly passed away in November 2022, and it was extremely unexpected," Gherlone said. "George Mark Children’s House immediately stepped in and provided bereavement support groups. You don’t want to lose your child, but George Mark helped us get through it."

All the care provided comes at no cost to families, thanks in large part to community grants and individual donations. The Hummingbird Hill Garden Gala will be held Saturday, Sept. 30 at George Mark Children’s House. Visit their website for more information.

Founded in 2004, George Mark Children’s House is the first palliative care center in the U.S.