For more than 20 years, Burlington City Arts has brought Art From the Heart to young patients at the University of Vermont Medical Center. Now, you might say, the popular art-making enterprise has grown up. With the help of a three-year grant from the Fountain Fund via the Vermont Community Foundation, Art From the Heart has begun serving adults in Baird 4, a wing for patients with chronic diseases that require longer stays, and in the Mother-Baby Unit.
Coordinator Rebecca Schwarz is passionate about the program, and about how art can humanize an environment that often feels impersonal and — literally — sterile. Her volunteer team works with kids every day of the week; since last June, it has been working with adults on Wednesdays and Sundays. Next month, they'll add Fridays to the schedule.
The two programs are a little different. "With the kids, we have some suggested ideas," Schwarz says, "but for the adults, we have a menu of kits." The latter include watercolor, oil pastels, mandalas and collage. While each kit provides all the materials patients need to create on their own, an important element of the program is personal interaction with volunteers.
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"When I train people," Schwarz says, "I tell them the three basic rules: privacy, hygiene and common sense. After that, we have a lot of flexibility to meet [patients] where they are and make this a more comfortable space." That could mean talking with a patient for an hour about "opera, travels and swans," as Schwarz did recently; it also means knowing when to leave a patient alone.
For germ-related reasons, the art cart holding craft supplies doesn't travel from the pediatric floor to Baird 4. It does, however, get rolled around the mother-baby wing, which serves women on bed rest. "These women just have time, and it's not relaxing time," Schwarz says.
Eileen Whalen, the medical center's president and CEO, acknowledges via email that "illness and hospitalization can be very frightening." The Art From the Heart program, she says, assists the hospital in its goal to provide "a peaceful, healing environment."
The program has a positive impact not just on patients but on medical personnel, Schwarz says, and on the interactions between the two. "If a nurse or doctor walks into a room," she says, "it might be hard to see that spark that makes the patient human, because they're focused on solving a problem, on the symptoms." It's easier for staff to get a fuller picture when they can see their patients' creativity and how they express themselves, she suggests.
Schwarz is excited about her program's expansion but admits she can't guarantee the adult offerings will continue after the three-year grant runs out. Until then, she and her volunteers will keep bringing art supplies from room to room and floor to floor, brightening the hospital one painting at a time.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Where the (He)art Is"