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A Daily Dose of Art for Two Jacksonville Health Centers Empowers and Heals

By Kelly Church

Art with a Heart in Healthcare (AWAHIH) is bringing life back into the children's hospital rooms in Jacksonville, FL. The nonprofit organization is a group of artists, volunteers and interns from the University of North Florida that visits the Wolfson Children's Hospital and Nemours Children Speciality Care six days a week with fine art experiences that are personalized to the patient and "enhance the healing process." The organization was founded in 2001 and has served thousands of children in the area.

"Our pediatric hospital 14 years ago provided a wide range of services for children but one thing we saw it lacked was a program devoted to fine art such as drawing, painting [and] sketching," says Christy Ponder, Program Developer & Volunteer Coordinator for the nonprofit.

"We saw the need to provide children the opportunity for creativity outside of arts and crafts. Our artists meet each patient where they are in their illness and recovery and each session is customized for that patient. We offer several different art options and settings to reach all children who are interested in participating."

AWAHIH places great importance on the dedication of volunteers. In order to fulfill their goal of enriching the lives of children battling difficult illnesses, they rely heavily on what they call the "selfless service, artistic talent and compassion" of the volunteers. Ponder says the organization has had some volunteers in the program for ten years.

"Volunteers help make our program thrive," Ponder says. "What makes our organization unique is that the volunteer can develop a personal relationship with a patient through art experiences."

One aspect of AWAHIH's art experiences is events. The organization's event UNMASKED is a painting exhibit displaying work from the children and the artists-in-residence. The kids paint on masks that are made to represent who they are while expanding their skills as artists and building a new level of self-awareness during their hospital stay.

"The mask is not used to represent a face," Ponder says. "The mask serves as the metaphor rather than be taken literally. What matters is not what is on the face, but more of what is inside the mind of the artist. We encouraged the child to see the mask as a canvas on which to tell their story. We asked each patient, 'What's in your head?'"

The show is held at the MOCA Jacksonville. It's events like the UNMASKED show that allows the AWAHIH to key in on their mission to "create art that helps to reclaim the child from the illness." These self-realization masks give the kids an opportunity to recover a sense of normalcy through art while owning their hospital experience.

"I believe that art is healing, particularly for sick children, because it reintroduces them to something normal, familiar and safe," Ponder says. "It also gives children a sense of power when all control is taken from them during their hospitalization."

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