"I wanted to help the kids so they didn't have to go through this alone," Erica Sokol tells PEOPLE

By Diane Herbst
July 27, 2017 10:46 AM

In 2009, Erica Sokol was a University of Florida freshman volunteering on the pediatric floor of a local hospital. She spent most of her time playing with the kids, many of whom had cancer. But with not enough volunteers to go around, she noticed that most of the children were by themselves, without a buddy like her.

“I wanted to help the kids so they didn’t have to go through this alone,” Sokol, 27, of Philadelphia, recalls. “I thought, ‘Here I am on a campus with all these students who want to help. How could I bring the two together?’ “

With the permission of hospital staffers, Sokol expanded the role of volunteers. She enlisted undergrads from campus and matched them with children in the hospital. The students would finger paint, play games or just hold hands with their young charges, visiting the same child several times a week as the days and months of treatments unfolded.

Erica Sokol
| Credit: Courtesy Erica Sokol

Upon her graduation in 2013, Sokol created the nonprofit Students Care and expanded the program to other hospitals and nearby college campuses. So far, over 500 kids have been helped by Sokol’s university volunteers, who are now in three hospitals in Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan. By September, Students Care will be in another three hospitals.

“I think she is amazing, truly caring about everyone,” says Lacey Pullam, 33, of Crawfordville, Florida, whose young son Darian had three buddies, including Erica, during his treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia and a rare blood disorder in 2011 and 2012 at the University of Florida Health Shands Hospital.

Credit: Courtesy Erica Sokol

“It’s a big blessing,” Pullman continues. “It gave Darian something to look forward to, to be like, ‘My buddy is coming to see me today,’ so he didn’t just sit and think of the negative and being sick.”

Says Beth Carroll, a certified child life specialist at Holtz Children’s Hospital in Miami, which uses Students Care volunteers from the University of Miami: “I have patients that get so terribly sick, and despite how ill and weak they feel, when they’ve made a bond they will find a way to pull themselves up and play with their buddy. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Former patient and brain cancer survivor Lauren Rhodes credits Sokol’s numerous visits and hand-holding with helping her get through tough treatments for cancer and multiple infections in 2011, when Rhodes was 19. “She’s incredible, she’s a rock star,” says Rhodes, now 25. “I feel a lot of people have dreams and she does what she dreams about.”

Credit: Courtesy Erica Sokol

Growing up in Miami, the daughter of two accountants, Sokol dreamed of becoming a doctor. That all changed in college, once she saw the impact her volunteers were having. And philanthropy runs in multiple generations of the family. When Sokol’s grandmother was diagnosed with cancer a decade ago, she started the Shelly Roberts Circle of Love Fund to provide financial support for critically ill cancer patients.

In January, Sokol received her first grant of $115,000, enabling her to grow Students Care fulltime with the help of a paid staffer. Sokol hopes one day that hospital buddy programs are in every pediatric floor in the country.

Rhodes, for one, thinks it’s imperative. “There were kids in the hospital rooms all alone,” she recalls. “We are all immune deficient so we can’t hang out together, it’s so important to have healthy people, energetic and loving and caring people to want to play with us and hang out with all of us.”

And while the patients certainly benefit, the student volunteers also receive much in return.

“It’s the most amazing thing, every time I go there I see what’s really important,” says Tiffany Clausen, 21, a senior at the University of Miami who volunteers at Holtz Children’s Hospital. “You are making a difference.”