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Creating a smile

Arts for Life helps kids with serious illnesses find joy

Michael J. Solender
Correspondent

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For several months after her initial treatment for rabdomyosarcoma, a cancer that attacks skeletal muscles, 15-year-old Miranda Eckard didn’t feel well enough to concentrate on much beyond her encouraging family visits.

Earlier this year, the East Lincoln High student from Denver, N.C., was hospitalized for 35 straight days at Presbyterian’s Hemby Children’s Hospital following aggressive treatment. As soon as she began to feel a bit better, she welcomed Sarah Alexander, program director for Arts for Life, into her room. They worked together on an art project that lifted Miranda’s spirits and opened the door to having fun again after feeling so poor for so long.

Miranda, an enthusiastic teen with bright eyes and a high-wattage smile, said Alexander was persistent with her visits and told her that she’d be ready to work with her when she felt up to it. One of the earlier projects they worked on found Miranda painting a colorful profile of a leaf-munching giraffe. “Giraffes are funny,” said Miranda, laughing. “I like everything about them and especially drawing and painting them.”

Simple pleasures

Letting kids be kids and enjoy simple pleasures like drawing giraffes is what the nonprofit arts education organization is all about.

Established in 2001 in Winston-Salem, AFL serves children in four cities across North Carolina: Charlotte, Asheville, Winston-Salem and Durham. Their mission is to support children facing serious illness and their families by providing educational art programs that enrich patient’s lives and encourage positive health care experiences.

In addition to providing direct in-patient support at Hemby, the program is also available to those receiving treatment at Presbyterian’s Blume Pediatric Hematology & Oncology Clinic.

Last year in Charlotte the program touched more than 1,000 patients, siblings and family members and brought more than 1,500 hours of art, music and creative writing to children and families in need.

Alexander, 33, is the sole full-time staffer in Charlotte and meets patient and family needs through the program with help from two music fellows, interns, and a network of volunteer supporters throughout the community. She joined AFL in 2006, establishing the program as it expanded to Charlotte.

“Providing space and time to patients and family members that allows them to be in control is an outcome where I see immediate impact, said Alexander, whose background includes degrees in the fine arts (textiles) and teaching.

The program was borne from the efforts of Anna Littman in Winston-Salem. Littman became a part of the community of patients at Brenner Children’s Hospital when her 11-year-old sister, Katie, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. She gave cameras, film, and journals to young cancer patients and saw how small interventions brought joy and allowed for a brief diversion from the trials facing children and their families.

Stress reliever

Today those volunteering their help are provided with training on how to assess and evaluate participant interests and ability level and work directly with a range of ages from infants to young adults. One look at the outsized program guide notebook Alexander has at the ready for volunteers finds dozens of one hour art projects that include printmaking, painting, writing, mixed media projects, even textile work. All the necessary materials are provided and participation is free of charge.

Volunteer Alex Cruz was working with Miranda recently at Blume clinic on a modeling project as Miranda waited to see her doctor. “I really like the idea of art in a medical setting, said Cruz, 25, a UNC Charlotte graduate with a double major in art and psychology who also has a graduate degree in art therapy from George Washington University. “Being creative is a great stress reliever; just allowing people even a moment to take their minds off things is therapeutic.”

The Junior League of Charlotte, a women’s volunteer service organization, is a primary source of volunteers for AFL. Kimberly Delp chair of the AFL outreach effort helps coordinate volunteer activity and has experienced the positive impact of the program.

“We have a “healthy child” initiative at Junior League and look to programs in the community that align with this,” said Delp, 29. “We’ve been supporting AFL since 2007 and it is routinely one of the most requested volunteer assignments from our people. When I find myself reflecting of the challenges on my job or in my life, they are really incomparable to what these kids and their families face with such courage every day. Going to the hospital and seeing how providing a parent with a 15-minute break to just get a moment alone or have a cup of coffee gives me fresh perspective on things.”

More giraffes

Miranda’s father, Danny Eckard, agrees. “I see so much genuine caring from Sarah and her staff,” said Eckard, 33. “They remember previous conversations, even if it has been weeks since we’ve seen them, they laugh and joke with Miranda, her mom and me, and it is just a nice escape, even if only for an hour.”

When asked how Miranda was progressing with her treatment, Eckard broke into a wide grin, “She’s got six weeks left of treatment, Eckard said, “And the cancer is in remission; there are no cancer cells present.”

For Miranda Eckard that’s the best possible news because she’s got many more giraffes to paint.

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