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'When kids are happy, their bodies are happier': Art therapy participants at The Children's Hospital at OU Medicine see benefits of program

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Patient art

A collection of patients’ art made out of torn pieces of construction paper and glue in The Zone at The Children’s Hospital Oct. 8.

Walking into a large play space at The Children’s Hospital at OU Medicine, visitors will see a new centerpiece on display. Patients' creations, made of torn pieces of construction paper, are hung up all over the wall. 

An array of colors fill the area, from depictions of a guitar and sun to a stitched heart. What most see as a collection of torn pieces of paper and glue, a child sees as a firetruck, with every piece exactly where it should be. 

These creations will be collected to form a gallery, displaying the culmination of the hospital’s recently created artist-in-residence program. 

The hospital’s artist-in-residence is Oklahoma City artist Ginna Dowling, who will be working with the kids, accumulating their art and displaying it throughout the halls of the hospital. 

Dowling’s project, “The Language of Hope and Courage,” is a year-long installation of artistic creations made by the kids.  

“What’s nice about Ginna’s project — because it’s big and a year long — that’s going to be a really good showpiece for us to be able to communicate to the community like, ‘Look at what we can do with these kids,’” said Sara Jacobson, director of child life and volunteers. “With an artist and kids, you can make these amazing things happen, we need this every day.” 

Jentri Whitford, coordinator of The Zone at the hospital, said Dowling has been working with both children and parents alike. The Zone is a community-funded, 6,000-square foot play area where patients and siblings can explore, learn and socialize, according to hospital's website.

“The experience that patients and families are having by being able to express ... sometimes it's the reason why they’re here — a lot of times it’s more of a sign of hope,” Whitford said. “Everyone has a place to participate.”

Jason and Heather Davey have a 4-year-old son named Liam who went through multiple open heart surgeries at the hospital as far back as 2 years old. Liam participated in the artist-in-residence program recently, creating a firetruck out of strips of construction paper. 

The Daveys have seen the hospital before and after the implementation of the hospital’s numerous therapy programs, and Heather said the hospital’s therapy dog program was comforting for her son. 

“It was fantastic,” Heather said. “My son was 2 at the time — it was nice to have that familiarity and comfort. Any type of therapy program is critical for the hospital.” 

Jason said therapy is helpful because it breaks up “the monotony of the hospital lifestyle.”

“Therapy brings you back to a sense of normality,” Jason said. “Anything that stimulates the brain and stimulates creativity has a lasting and healing benefit to it that, I don’t know if they can even calculate that.” 

The Children’s Hospital is now seeking someone to run a permanent art therapy program as well as coordinate the rest of its child therapy programs, which the Daveys said have made a positive impact. 

Jacobson said the hospital has the resources, but nobody to run the program. 

“A lot of times we have the stuff, but we don’t have the staff,” Jacobson said. “Our goal is to have someone here daily that is able to do art programming with our kids. There is art and creation everywhere, but there’s nobody there to really direct it.” 

The hospital currently has therapy dog programs and a number of child life specialists who help patients and families cope with hospitalization and other challenges related to hospital life. The hospital recently took on a new music therapist, but before that it took several years to establish the music therapy program, which began in summer 2016.

“It took us about eight years to fundraise and really get support,” Jacobson said. “We did a research project to prove (the program’s worth), and once we did, the hospital saw that. We had $4,000 worth of instruments before we had someone to use them.” 

Heather said the benefits of happiness in children go a long way.

“When kids are happy, their bodies are happier and hopefully a little healthier,” Heather said. 

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