Truly Make Believe Makes Magic with an Important Message
By Stephanie Kocer
Rachel Oehlert was seven years old when she was diagnosed with Dyslexia. What she remembers from that time was her teachers’ frustration with her in class and the lingering feeling that she was different from her classmates. Her family moved to Colorado, where she was diagnosed and they learned more about her learning disability. Without a lot of resources in public school to help her learn at her own pace, Rachel’s mom started homeschooling her, where she learned to retrain her brain and became a better student.
In adulthood, however, Rachel still felt a lack of self-confidence, especially when it came to reading in front of people. So she decided it was time to take action. Her love of theater and acting inspired an idea – she could go to the children’s hospital in Denver, Children’s Hospital Colorado, as a volunteer and read to patients. But to help with her confidence she would go in character, specifically as a Disney Princess. “I thought, maybe if I dress up like a character I could slowly be able to build my confidence up reading in front of people,” Rachel says.
So she did just that. The first time she went to volunteer she dressed as Belle from “Beauty and the Beast. “I thought it was appropriate because she has such a love for story books,” she says.
The kids loved it, so Rachel started volunteering to read regularly at the hospital in character and slowly she felt not only a sense of confidence in her own abilities, but also the sense that there could be more to her pet project than just reading.
“When I met the families and kids and heard their stories, I found a connection with them. I could go in and out of the hospital, but they couldn’t,” says Rachel.
After a while, Rachel’s friend Lydia SunderRaj expressed interest in volunteering with her. Lydia started dressing up as Princess Jasmine from “Aladdin” and going with Rachel during her volunteer times. “She has always been so supportive and encouraging to me during this journey and when she sees me struggling a little while reading she’s always right there to cheer me on,” Rachel says.
The duo were able to meet with more families at the hospital and were able to bring more characters to life. And that’s when things really started to take off. “It grew and found its own purpose,” she says.
In 2016, Rachel founded Truly Make Believe. Her and her friends dressed up like Ariel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Jasmine, and other characters while they read and did other activities with patients at the children’s hospital.
“When we were interacting with the families we realized there was a need for more,” Rachel says. “Not every kid wants to sit still for a story.”
Using their improv skills, the group started to bring games, crafts, and sing alongs with them to entertain the kids. The bubble machine, fake tattoos, and occasional treats proved to be favorites of all the kids. And their parents were also very responsive to what Truly Make Believe was doing. “They don’t have to worry for a few minutes and they can just watch their kid be happy and laughing like a moment of relief for them,” Rachel says.
Today, Truly Make Believe has grown to include nearly 20 volunteers and has expanded to other businesses and organizations. They’ve volunteered at places like Brent’s Place and Ronald McDonald House and have even started to do in-home visits. They’ve also been able to add more characters, including Spider-Man and a Jedi. The variety has helped them reach more children and families.
“We’re really trying to look for anyone who needs more magic in their lives.”
Rachel works hard to make sure that magic is authentic for the kids they work with. Right now, everyone who volunteers with Truly Make Believe is someone who had been invited by Rachel to join the group. Most of them have some sort of acting background. Each volunteer receives training on the types of medical equipment and conditions they might encounter when visiting with kids, and how to run activities that are accommodating to those things. They also go through trainings on acting and improv.
Above anything else, Truly Make Believe’s mission is to serve the children and families by bringing a little magic into their tough situations. “No matter where we go from here, we’ll never forget why we’re doing this in the first place and we’ll keep the families as our top priority,” Rachel says.
Rachel is currently in the process of registering Truly Make Believe as an official 501c3 nonprofit. She’s working on bringing the group into other setting in the community, including nursing homes, schools, and libraries. They are also working towards offering families photo shoots with the characters.
Truly Make Believe has helped Rachel find her inner confidence. She encourages anyone looking to start a nonprofit. “Find something you’re truly passionate about and see if there is a need not being met,” she says. Rachel also hopes to continue to change the stigma around learning disabilities. “No one is truly disabled if you choose to look at them the same way you look at everyone else,” she says. “If anyone is struggling with being different, just remember other people don’t define who you are. You’re the only one who defines who you are.”