This Thursday (November 17th), Arts For Life will host its 5th Annual Roll & Stroll fundraiser, an all-ages bike ride and walk through Tanglewood Park’s Festival of Lights – the night before it opens to the public for car traffic. The Roll & Stroll raises money for Arts For Life’s educational arts programs for pediatric patients and families in treatment at Brenner Children’s Hospital.
Arts For Life got its start in 2001 at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem. At the time, eleven-year-old Katie was diagnosed and being treated for bone cancer at Brenner. Her older sister, Anna, thought it would be a great idea to bring cameras and film to patients on the pediatric oncology unit and teach them photography. Katie became Arts For Life’s first art student, and Anna the first art teacher. Today, Arts for Life is a nonprofit organization that provides educational art programs that enrich patient’s lives, nurture their minds and spirits, and encourages positive health care experiences for children and their families. Arts for Life currently helps children in four chapter communities across North Carolina: Brenner’s Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem; Duke Children’s Hospital & Health Center in Durham; Mission Children’s Hospital in Asheville; and Carolinas HealthCare System’s Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte.
The organization’s Roll & Stroll fundraiser began in 2012 as a small but mighty event attended by 240 guests, and has since become a local holiday tradition attended by over a thousand people raising over $24,000 annually. This year’s event will include a winter holiday market featuring local artists, interactive art projects, marshmallow roasting, pictures with Mr. and Mrs. Claus and more. You can learn more and register here.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with two special Arts for Life staff members, Betsey McLawhorn, program director at Brenner Children’s Hospital, and Mary Margaret Fulk, program director at Duke Children’s Hospital and coordinator of the 2016 Roll & Stroll. We discussed how Roll & Stroll enables Arts For Life to continue to bring creativity, discovery, and joy to children and families and why art is often a much-needed bright spot in otherwise dark and challenging times.
Could you give me a glimpse into your day as a Program Director for Arts for Life?
(Betsy) I currently split my time between programming with the children and all the behind the scenes administrative work that ensures our families get the best programming possible. I’ll begin my day connecting over emails, and preparing the art station for a fun morning. Each week we make sure to have excellent examples of our current art project to share with the kids, and that every teacher has done the example themselves. It is important that we work out any kinks so we can run a really smooth art table or bedside lesson with our kids. Then I open the art table for a few hours for outpatient visitors. Here at Brenner’s we see two to eight kids each morning and they might create with us for twenty-minutes to two hours. As an organization we have monthly themes which drive our projects, and depending on the clinic we have one to three different projects for patients each week. In the morning there are kids rushing through the door when I get there and it’s fun to watch them decide which project they want to tackle first. It’s often a hard choice because we strive to provide dynamic lessons! The second half of the day I am managing our amazing team of teachers, volunteers and interns and making sure they have everything they need to be successful teachers with Arts for Life. It might be finding subs for them when they are out so that we continue to have programming during the times that we say we will. I’m also supporting our staff, including a Program Coordinator, Amber Scavo, who runs an outpatient art clinic with volunteers that can see upwards of thirty kids at the art table during a three-hour period; and our Program Assistant, Kelsey Brown, who takes our art projects bedside each afternoon. A favorite part of my non-programming time is connecting with our community – I love the partnerships we have with local artists, museums and other non-profits like Reynolda House Museum of American Art, The Enrichment Center, and SECCA.
Can you elaborate on the themes that drive your art projects?
(Mary Margaret) We dubbed 2016 as the year of The Artist’s Journey. All of the different things we have talked about around the art table this year have dovetailed back to the idea that we are all on a journey together. We explain to the kids that they are each on a journey in life and how their journey is intertwined with the journeys of those they meet and interact with everyday in the hospital and in life – including others at the art table, their nurses, doctors and others they come in contact with at the hospital.
Through these themes, the art table becomes this amazing place for collaboration, discovery and for sharing. We live in a time where people do not really value art education in our schools. This is so unfortunate as we get to see art’s huge value play out at our tables every day. These kids and their families are going through situations where they do not have much control and they are burdened with many variables and unknowns. We see how art empowers no matter the circumstance. Our art tables become a safe haven – a homebase to come to no matter what comes their way.
How has working with Arts for Life changed your outlook on life?
(Betsy) From day one, Arts for Life has changed me for the better. I am much more grateful for every little thing. I take much more time both personally and with my family to appreciate all of life’s moments. Another big impact this organization has had on my life is the concept of self-care. As Arts for Life staff members, we share with one another what we are doing for self-care each week and we hold each other accountable. We believe self-care is so important because if we want our kids and volunteers to have an excellent experience then we need to be able to model how important it is to take time for ourselves. This allows us to be our very best.
(Mary Margaret) I second Betsy’s comments completely. Daily we see the huge challenges these children and their families face; it is humbling. When we build relationships with these families we have the honor of walking with them on their journey. And being a part of Arts for Life has helped me realize that life is about all of the simple moments that we oftentimes take for granted. Be it a personal conversation with a child or a creating a project at the table with a family or a hug just when someone needs it most – these are the moments that truly matter. It doesn’t matter the actual amount of time you spend with someone; it is your presence in the moment you are in that matters most. When we all go home, no matter what is going on in our lives we can take a deep breath and be grateful for the gift of perspective.
(Betsy) I also love to see how Arts for Life has affected the lives of our volunteers. For example, I have had volunteers call me to tell me that they will be late for a shift because they just received some sad news. My initial response is to tell them to just stay home, take time for themselves and not worry about coming in for that shift. But they almost always say, “no I want to be there – coming in is my self-care”. For them, volunteering and working with these patients allows them to set their own hardships aside. It lets them be present and enjoy some time away from it all. I have seen several volunteers work through their own hardships here at the art table, like a cancer diagnosis in their own family or a loss of loved one. This work becomes a part of their own healing process.
What is something you often find yourself telling others about Arts for Life?
(Mary Margaret) Yes, we are an arts education organization but really what we are here to do is help kids be kids. We are reaching kids in an environment and in a season that is full of anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and pain. Each one of these things is something no one wants a child to experience. We are able to use visual arts, music and creative writing to give them a way to create, laugh and play again. For a moment in time, we can alleviate the negative and bring them into a positive space. We help re-engage weary families and help them come back to life. In fact, that is probably one of our favorite things to do.
What would you say Arts for Life needs most from our community right now?
(Betsy) Right now, we have a lot of opportunities for hospital volunteers at Brenner Children’s Hospital and we are accepting applications. We are also looking to expand our community council seeking those that can volunteer for events like The Roll & Stroll and other fundraising events that are coming up this spring.
(Mary Margaret) We are a young local organization – only fifteen years old – and we are always looking for ways to engage with our greater community and build awareness. We cannot really invite people in to see our work because of privacy concerns and regulations, so we are so appreciative of others instead inviting us in to tell our story. It is so helpful when other organizations like civic clubs or churches give us the opportunity to come in and present to their members. These opportunities directly affect the number of families we can serve.
To learn more about The Roll & Stroll event and to register, click here.
(Heads up! This event will be capped at 1,000 participants so we encourage you to register in advance)
Interesting in volunteering for Arts for Life? Details here.