AURORA | The crowd buzzed at Children’s Hospital Colorado on May 14 until 19-year-old Samika Williams took the stage and silenced it with a poignant poem about the value of friendship and the fragility of life.
The audience was mesmerized as she recited lines filled with emotion, dedicated to friends she’s made over the past four years at the hospital’s school for young patients.
“It was you who taught me how to put my frown upside down, and now forever I smile because it was you who taught me how,” she said into the microphone.
Williams spent months working on the piece with a local poet as part of the hospital’s Art for Life series, and she delivered the lengthy narrative flawlessly and passionately in front of more than 100 people at the final celebratory event in the hospital’s Mount Oxford room.
The performance was bittersweet for Williams, who has spent all her high school years at the hospital’s Medical Day Treatment Program — a school for young patients who are too sick to attend public school.
For Williams, graduating means leaving behind irreplaceable friends and mentors. She remembers being lackluster, angry and apathetic when she first arrived as a freshman.
“I didn’t really care about life, to be honest,” said Williams, who suffers from obesity and edema, a condition that causes swelling because of an abnormal accumulation of fluid under the skin.
Since then, the skills she gained from art therapy, mentors, poets and friends are immeasurable. But she’ll forever cherish one lesson above all.
“I learned how to be grateful for my life,” she said.
The celebration on May 14 marked the end of the Art for Life Program for the academic year. The program, now in its fourth year, is run by the Ponzio Creative Arts Therapy Center and matches up community artists with kids at the Medical Day Treatment Program.
Kids in the program range in age from about 8 to 20, and they have a host of illnesses and chronic diseases. Artwork and performances created by about 20 artist-patient teams were exhibited at the event, which was one of the most inspirational experiences for Katherine Reed, art therapist and program manager of the Ponzio Creative Art Therapy Program.
“This is beyond anything I could have imagined,” she said. “I think the kids got to live their dream, as corny as that sounds.”
A boy named “Big Will” got to be a freestyle rapper for the evening; Yasmin, Donovon, Aide and Alysha had the chance to sing in front of an enthusiastic crowd; Kalynn did a dance routine with pom poms as if the event were a pep rally.
The artwork displayed in the hallway of the hospital featured paintings, photography, drawings and mixed media.
One of the paintings was made by a 9-year-old named Joseph Sampson, who was born without kidneys, and his mentor-artist Chris Tippin. The painting featured Bigfoot playing baseball in outer space with a few of Sampson’s other favorite legendary and historic characters: Godzilla, T-Rex, King Kong, a woolly mammoth.
Tippin, a Denver-based artist who specializes in acrylics and mixed media, came up with the idea for the Art for Life program and says the artists benefit as much as the children do.
“It’s awesome to be working with these kids and hear their imaginations come to life,” Tippin said last month. “Artists have their own style, but when they have to work with a child and teach them things they have to dig deep within themselves to (ask), ‘How do I make this? How does this come about?’”
Through the program, Tippin said artists have become more confident in their own abilities, from painting, drawing and sculpting to photography, music, dance, theater, poetry and quilting.
The Art for Life Program has proven to help young patients in many ways, and hospital officials will be publishing their evidentiary findings this summer.
According to a study conducted last year, Art for Life is shown to increase self esteem in patients, as well as hone music and art skills, and give kids positive role models in their lives, said Heather Kennedy, research coordinator for the hospital.
Williams is proof alone that art therapy changes lives. Her lukewarm feelings about life have been replaced with a desire to go to college, and a sense that she’s inspired others through her poetry.
Her transformation is hard to describe for Erin Anderson, a dance/movement therapist at the hospital who has worked with Williams since she was a freshman.
“Samika is able to breathe more deeply into her life,” she said. “I mean that literally, and I mean that in the deepest sense of the way she’s allowed herself to start taking in more of her life.”
The significance of the May 14 event wasn’t lost on Williams, who has also had the fortune of watching her peers metamorphose before her eyes.
“I think it’s amazing, because you know everybody here who performed and who did artwork has an illness,” she said, “but yet again, everybody has a talent.”
Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected]
The Art for Life Exhibition featuring paintings, photography, drawings and mixed media by students at their artist-mentors is located in the Frederic C. Hamilton Family Gallery on the first floor of Children’s Hospital Colorado and continues through July 9.