Children use imagination to open hospital doors


Artistic expression gives a flavor to life, a sign of reason to keep progressing, a hope of what could be if a bridge were built between one’s imagination and reality. After combining the creative genius of a child with the perfect medium to share one’s innermost being, a clear path to self-actualization can be created by anyone.

Through Art With a Heart for Children, patients diagnosed with serious illnesses at Wolfson Children’s Hospital and Nemours Children’s Clinic have an opportunity to leave their world of needles, surgeries and medication and submerse themselves into a color-explosive wonderland of watercolors, photography, printmaking and more.

“While the hospital is there to help them cure, we see it [as] our job to help them heal,” Jeanette Toohey said, executive director for Art With a Heart.

The volunteers

Art Professor Louise Freshman Brown has served as the bridge between UNF’s Department of Art and Design and Art With a Heart since 2002. A three credit internship or independent study is available to her previous students who are fine art majors, if a pupil passes through her rigorous screening process.

“I make sure they’re emotionally mature enough to handle that type of setting,” Brown said.

The selection process includes an evaluation by Brown and a screening by Wolfson’s, including a medical and background check, and hospital orientation and training.

Defined as a transformational experience, Art With a Heart can change how students view their abilities at working with critically ill children, teaching those with little to no previous art training and allowing them to work in a hospital setting, Brown said.

About two to five UNF art students participate in this program every semester, which touches 2,300 children every year. Students work with about one third of those children, Toohey said.

Senior painting major David Nackashi wanted to use his skill in a practical way through Art With a Heart.

“The kids liked seeing us come. It was a good way to use our talent for something real,” Nackashi said. “It’s a tough experience, but it’s worth doing.”

Two alumni, Lori Presto and Amie Murray, who participated in Art With a Heart through UNF, currently hold the titles of Program Coordinator/Art Director and Art Educator for the children at Wolfson and Nemours.

Accomplished visiting artists, such as local photographer Linda Broadfoot, periodically teach the children different art techniques.

“Each intern brings a special gift to working with those kids and families,” Toohey said. “That’s one of the great strengths of the program.”

Creative curriculum

As suffocating as our white-walled classrooms and tiny dorm rooms may seem, they don’t even begin to compare with the monotony of hospital rooms. And nothing can suppress the independent thinking and creativity of a child more than being in an extremely structured, meticulously controlled environment. Throughout a typical day, most of the children have no choice concerning their blood tests, medications, surgeries, curfews and endless health precautions.

However, once the patients have a paintbrush or a digital camera in their hands, they can have control of their life again, even if just for that moment. One can only imagine the endless possible creativity explosions that result.

“Unlike a school curriculum, we offer what is called a free-choice educational experience where the participants choose what they want to learn,” Toohey said.

Recently, music and creative writing have become available throughout the program.

For the students, just a few hours spent teaching has innumerable potential benefits for these children. Artistic expression has been proven to alleviate depression, anxiety, increase mobility and change a child’s perception of life, Toohey said.

Art With a Heart’s 4th annual silent art auction fundraiser will be held Oct. 17 at the J. Johnson Gallery in Jacksonville Beach. Volunteer opportunities are available through contacting Art With a Heart directly.

During an age where a school’s art budget is often the first area to be cut, Art With a Heart builds more capacity for artists to help in the health care industry — providing more job opportunities for serious artists, Toohey said.