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Art gardening program brings outdoors in for kids at rehab hospital


August 11, 2008
By By Sheryl Ubelacker The Canadian Press

Aug. 11, 2008, Toronto – Three days a week, gardener Jane
Hillary and artist Shannon Crossman bring a kid-sized wagon loaded with
plants and a trolley of art supplies to their charges' bedsides at
Bloorview Kids Rehab in a
trial project known as ARTery.

Ana Mikarovska playfully sprays her face and hair with a cooling dose of water from a plant mister, her face breaking into a huge grin as she chatters away to Jane the Gardener.

“I just like spraying myself,” announces Ana, aiming thesprayer at her face once again. “It wakes me up.”

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The pair are tending to a clay pot full of hot pepper, leek and nasturtium plants that Ana sowed near the beginning of July. There is more water on Ana than on her miniature garden.

But that's OK, it's all part of the fun – and fun and growing things and being creative up here in Ana's room at Bloorview Kids Rehab is what it's all about.

The eight-year-old has been at the Toronto centre for months going through therapy for the effects of the autoimmune disease Guillaine-Barre syndrome, which has weakened her legs and made walking difficult and often painful.

Unable as yet to join more mobile young patients for gardening and art programs on the hospital's grounds, she and others confined to their medical units are having the outdoors brought inside to them.

Three days a week, gardener Jane Hillary and artist Shannon Crossman bring a kid-sized wagon loaded with plants and a trolley of art supplies to their charges' bedsides in a trial project known as ARTery.

And under their tutelage, Ana has blossomed.

“She was a bit more shy than some of the other kids and very much enjoys time on her own,” says Katherine Upshall, a child life specialist who works with Ana, explaining that she needs to take rests when fatigued, “so that sort of isolates her from the group.”

“But when she's with the ARTery program, she's a totally different kid. Not shy. Very outgoing and bubbly.”

Bloorview saw Ana as an ideal participant for the program because she identified art as an activity she loves to do, says Upshall.

“I think it's her way of communicating. She connects to it. And Shannon and Jane love it so much that it's sort of their communication. They all understand each other.”

“So this is a great opportunity for some one-on-one interaction and the art has really been helpful for expressing how you're feeling and it's an emotional outlet for her.”

Beyond physical reasons, some children who have suffered a debilitating injury or illness also aren't emotionally ready to take part in group activities, Crossman says.

“They want to stay in their room, but they still need to have those activities that relate to their life outside of Bloorview. So painting: ‘Oh I paint at home and it makes me feel like I'm at home.’ We've heard this comment several times.”

Sarah Dobbs, the artistic co-ordinator at Bloorview, says the hospital has recognized the importance of creative arts to the health of the children. Spiral Garden, its outdoor creative arts program that integrates kids from Bloorview and from the community, has been operating for almost 25 years.

“We're not art therapists and we don't have therapeutic goals,” insists  Dobbs. “But there's a therapeutic value to what we do.”

“It's really to give the children an enhanced experience in the hospital, to remind them what it's like to be healthy, the normalcy of their life. When they're institutionalized, they don't have choices … but the arts program offers them choices.”

ARTery, an offshoot of Spiral Garden, was so named to reflect the lifeblood of Bloorview, the rehabilitation programs for ill and injured children that go on inside the centre's walls, Dobbs says. “The units are the core of the hospital.”

Back in Ana's room, Crossman points out two figures her young charge has fashioned from Egyptian clay – a tiny greenish bird with delicately folded wings and a brown nest for it to call home, which will later be fired in a kiln.

“This is what Jane made,” says Ana, pointing to a colourful turtle sitting on her window sill. Her bird is a companion piece, she says, because “the turtle needs a friend.”

She shows off a water-colour painting recently completed and pinned to her bulletin board. One of today's impromptu projects was making a hammock from pastel-printed cloth for her stuffed animal, a white poodle named Snowy.

“I just like art, basically,” Ana says, agreeing that it makes her feel better. “I've actually learned how to do more art since I came to Bloorview.”

She is also enthralled by the mobile garden brought to her room, stroking the flower heads of cattails and Joe Pye weed that Hillary plucked from the wild and added to the wagon's collection of plants.

Ana watches intently as the gardener opens a small bag, tips out dried sweet basil into her palm and offers around a sniff; it's just one of a cornucopia of aromatic herbs she keeps on hand.

The herbs can be the only way for Hillary to connect with young patients with severe physical disabilities or brain injuries, who may not be able to benefit from seeing or touching a flower or foliage.

“A lot of the kids cognitively are not able to really discern this and that – but they can smell,” says Hillary. “And of course those that I cannot really connect with cognitively, it's a matter of trying to find what affects them in a pleasant way.”

“It is truly bringing the outside in,” she enthuses. “I am an outdoor gal. I'm a farm gal from way back, and to know that if I was in a setting like this that was devoid of fresh life, I think it would be very difficult for me.”

“That's what it is,” she says of ARTery's appeal to the children. “It's just bringing joy somehow. And for me, it's the gardens.”

The Canadian Press


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