Art Therapy: Helping Kids With Cancer Let It Go -- and Create!

Art Therapy: Helping Kids With Cancer Let It Go -- and Create!

Chloe, Annika and Ada on a playdateChloe, Annika and Ada

Annika Johnson, age 7, gently brushes back the long, blond hair of Chloe, one of her two best friends, and pulls red-headed Ava close for a photo. These second-graders have been mostly separated since Dec. 1, 2013, when Annika left school to begin seven months of treatment for Wilms tumor, including surgery and chemotherapy.

"We don't really get to see Annika at school anymore," says Ava.

"Except for playdates!" says Annika, smiling and wielding a paint roller briskly over canvas and looking, for the moment, almost nothing like the very sick little girl seen and described on the Causepages blog written by her father, Nate Johnson. "I'm going to add some purple!"

The girls were among more than 120 people -- children with cancer, family members and volunteer artists -- who congregated in Google's cafeteria Sunday for an art workshop hosted by Kids & Art (KidsandArt.org). The non-profit was created by Bay Area Artist Purvi Shah, when she realized her youngest son, Amaey, who battled leukemia for six years "was the happiest…when he was creating art in the hospital therapy room, in the hospital preschool, at home and at summer camp."

"Happy" was the word of the day for the teenagers making jewelry out of bottle caps, for pre-schoolers connecting dots of paint with paintbrushes that looked huge in their tiny fists, for families pasting together collages. I watched a bald tween with a breathing tube make a classic, age-appropriate eye roll at a parent who suggested an activity she didn't choose herself.

One of the most common words of the day? "Cool!" The undertone? Bittersweet. Parents looked too long at their sick children as they worked. Kirsten Johnson teared up, describing the connection between her daughters, Annika and Elise, and what the songs from the Disney movie Frozen meant to them (see Nate's open letter to songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert-Lopez here). And all the volunteers running around for more water and paint and brushes and paper plates to support 16 art stations supported by 22 local artists were extra nice to each other. 

Art created at a Kids & Art event for children with cancerAnnika Johnson watches her art dry.

"I look around this room and I think that life's just not fair," said volunteer and Artist Shiraaz Bhabha, who created a popular station for blowdryers, crayons, canvases and paint and coached Annika, Chloe and Ava through the process. "I got diagnosed with breast cancer last year but I'm fine. I had surgery and I've had radiation but I feel like I've dodged a bullet. Look at these kids."

Bhabha's very personal connection to the Kids & Art cause was repeated in conversation after conversation I had at the art workshop. "One of my friend's daughters…" volunteered Photographer Avni Bid when I asked. "My better half…" I responded. We smiled sadly.

"Oh, this issue is close to our hearts," said Praveen Kallakari, who with wife Suchete Joshi brought their children. Rohit, age 5, described the spacewalker he drew to pick up rocks on Mars, while Nikhita, age 3, explained the face with the googley eyes and red and purple feathers glued on with one word: "Mommy!"

Rohit and Nikhita will donate their masterpiecesRohit and Nikhita will donate their masterpieces.

"No, our children are healthy. But our sister-in-law was diagnosed with cancer," said Kallakari, adding that he and his wife will donate his children's creations for Kids & Art to auction to raise funds for more workshops that are free to children. "She's in remission now, but every time…well, it's never far from our thoughts." 

Shrieks of laughter and "I need more water for my brush!" quickly filled the Google cafeteria with a very different hum than I've experienced in previous work-day visits, but the room quieted down when Founder Purvi Shah and Partnerships Director Laxmi Natarajan took the podium with Program Director Helen Cole Lew to thank Google for their donation and share that this art workshop was the biggest ever for Kids & Art. 

From left to right: Purvi Shah, Helen Cole Lew and Laxmi Natarajan of KidsandArt.orgFrom left to right: Purvi Shah, Helen Cole Lew and Laxmi Natarajan of KidsandArt.org.

Afterwards, when I asked, Shah confirmed that the workshop cost $3,500 to hold, not including the free space, some of the refreshments and $500 in art supplies donated by Google. If she could have anything, I asked, what would Purvi Shah ask of the Silicon Valley community, with its wealth of resources and talent?

"We are looking for corporate sponsorships. Please, support us by donating space, money and your time," Shah said. "Whenever we do events at Pixar or Dreamworks or Google, that really attracts families. If you are working at a fun place, that's a great place for people to get excited to come do art. And art is therapy. Not just for the kids but for the family as well."

"May I ask you," I said, "On a personal note, how you feel when you experience art like this?" (Full-disclosure: I have known Purvi as a colleague and friend since 2000. She created BlogHer's "hermoticon" logo. And I knew her son, Amaey, his entire life. Amaey passed away on September 25, 2011 after he relapsed with a chemo-induced acute myelogenous leukemia.)

"How do I feel?" asked Shah. "It saddens me to see so many children signed up because that means that lot of children are fighting cancer. A lot of these kids came from the hospital... but a lot of them are survivors, and there are many bereaved siblings. The fact that they came and it helped them, that's why we do this."

"On a personal note, somebody asked me, 'How do you do it?'" said Shah. "I feel really happy when I'm here. I see the kids enjoying art. Living in the moment just really excites me. That's what Amaey was doing -- living in the moment. That is why I keep doing this, over and over."

"We want to reach out to the community and let them know that kids do get cancer and we cannot take that away from them, but we can definitely make art available to them to add more color in their life," said Shah.

To donate workspace, supplies or time visit the Kids & Art website, where you can read more about the organization and this mission: "Kids & Art provides children touched by cancer and their care circle, with an environment that enriches, encourages and empowers them to create memorable experiences."

Lisa Stone is a BlogHer Co-founder and CEO of BlogHer Inc.

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