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Creative Tools to Last a Lifetime

October 31, 2016 | By Annie Rogers

Just about five years ago, I made one of the clearest memories I have ever made at Arts For Life.

I was in a hospital room with Sydney, then 7 years old. I was sitting on the end of her bed. The hospital –  the doctors, the nurses, the pokes, the tests, the tension, the uncertainty that come with a new diagnosis – they were all new for Sydney and her family then. Over the next 3 years, I would witness them walk through the journey of Sydney’s treatment, through remission, through to the last day of her treatment.

On this day though – the first day I ever met Sydney – I was sitting with a stack of magazines on my lap, pitching an art lesson.

I didn’t know how it was going to go. There were a lot of people in that room. Immediate family, extended family, friends. Balloons to the ceiling. Handmade cards from every kid in Sydney’s elementary school class taped to the wall. Nurses coming in and out, the door standing open, everybody talking.

Lots of distraction.


Collage Dancer, the artwork that inspired this post. Created by Sydney at age 7

I was distracted. I even remember thinking, as I was explaining the project: there’s just no way we’re going to be able to do this. I was already mentally scrolling through my schedule, thinking of a time I could tell Sydney I would come back and we could try again.

Then something happened.

The doctor came in the room, followed by the nurse, followed by the social worker. Nothing urgent – they were just making their rounds – but the room became that much louder, that much more crowded, the distraction amplified. And Sydney, now flipping through the magazine I had handed her, was fully, sincerely, utterly, unaware of any of it. She was absorbed in the collage she was planning.

When she finished flipping through the first magazine – having already chosen the images she needed out of it – she went on with the next in the stack. Then the next, and the next. A nurse took her vital signs. The doctor listened to her lungs. They silenced her beeping IV pump. Her visitors left; new ones arrived. For the next hour, Sydney chose, cut, designed, arranged, and glued the pieces of her collage, working continuously through every. single. distraction.

Want to know a secret? I kept the collage she made that day. (It’s okay, Sydney gave it to me, as she has with many pieces of her art in the last few years.)

Sydney, now 12, sharing her latest illustrations with artist Leo Monahan at an Arts For Life workshop earlier this summer.

I kept that collage because for me, it acts as the visual reminder of why Arts For Life is so important.

We can’t change the hard stuff about being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, but we can change the experience of it. We can give kids the tools to cope in the form of quality art materials, one-on-one instruction, and positive engagement and encouragement. We can, through art, help kids visualize a world full of hope, joy, and creativity, even in the most challenging of circumstances.

From that first day I met her in the hospital, through the whole rest of her treatment, Sydney faced challenges, both physical and emotional. And through each one, she also made art. Beautiful, poignant, colorful art – sometimes silly, sometimes rushed, sometimes so in-depth it took months to create.

She is finished with treatment now, and we don’t see each other as often as we used to (which is a good thing.) She keeps a sketchbook and brings it in to show me all her new drawings.

Her challenges now are  different then a few years ago – she faces the everyday complexities regular 12-year-olds do – but she still has art to help her through them. I’d like to think that her Arts For Life experience has a little something to do with that.