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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

Arts for Life: A Creative Link Between Art and Healthcare

by Lisa Moore

At 23, Heather Miller was diagnosed with Pre-B Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Because she had a pediatric cancer she was accepted into a pediatric protocol study at Presbyterian Hospital. Her treatment was supposed to last about seven months but ended up taking much longer due to infections. What helped Miller through the ups and downs of her treatment was Arts for Life, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting people facing serious illnesses.

Arts for Life offers visual art, creative writing and music programs designed to decrease patient stress and anxiety, keep patients active and engaged and help families cope with the realities of illness. The program is offered in Charlotte at Blume Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Clinic and Presbyterian's Hemby Hospital.

“When you're in the hospital day after day you start to feel a little useless. Having something constructive to do, something to plan out and execute, builds you up again. I've always loved the arts so I think it was natural for me,” said Miller, who also goes by Heatha' Milla' Canca' Killa.’

Arts for Life was founded in 2001 by Anna Littman whose 11-year-old sister was being treated for bone cancer at Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston Salem. Littman witnessed the struggles and triumphs of young patients and observed that many of the children’s emotional, social, and cognitive needs were not being met. While helping to care for her sister, Littman began teaching art to kids at the hospital. Photography and visual arts helped patients cope with their medical treatments and hospital stays. Overwhelming requests from patients, parents, and caregivers led to the formation of Arts For Life.

Today, Arts For Life runs chapters in Charlotte, Asheville, Durham and Winston-Salem and offers pediatric clinic art programs, patient and family art support groups, and inpatient art programs. The creative art projects enrich patients’ lives, nurture their minds and spirits, and encourage positive healthcare experiences for children and their families.

Lucy Snow, Art for Life’s Charlotte Community Coordinator, said the organization provides an outlet for joy and some peace during treatment and allows patients to feel productive and in control during times of illness.

“Children are often stressed, anxious or bored while in-patient at a hospital or being seen regularly at a clinic. Art and music are the best activities for children to engage in to focus the mind and body during stress. Another huge benefit is that medical procedures and treatments are more easily handled when a child is relaxed and their mind is not focused on the pain and discomfort,” said Snow.

Program Director Sarah Alexander said many parents tell her that the prospect of time at the Arts for Life art table is what gets their child in the car to go to the clinic. Patients can take part in visual art projects that include 3-D paper sculptures, painting and drawing projects, puppets, printmaking, jewelry making, creative writing and more. Music teachers provide guitar and drum lessons.

“Our programs, led by dedicated art educators, musicians, interns, and volunteers, keep kids active and engaged in life and support their development into successful members of the community with a rich appreciation of the arts. In 2010, our team taught 2,639 art lessons to 964 patients, siblings, and families. Our work is supported by the hospital and grants from foundations, but in large part, we are sustained by the Charlotte community with donations from individuals and sponsorships from local businesses,” said Alexander who holds a Masters in Art Education.

On 11/11/11 Arts for Life will hold the first annual Fancy Pants Dance in Charlotte to raise awareness about the program. A portion of the proceeds will benefit young patients and families in the community. Attendees can enjoy an exciting evening of delicious food and live music from The Fabulous Swingin' Richards, bid on art during live and silent auctions and take part in a contest for the fanciest decorated pants.

With less than a year until her treatment is finished, Miller still enjoys being artistic. “With Arts for Life I've done lots of painting and mixed media work and print making. I've learned a little bit of guitar and been serenaded when I felt too gross to play for myself. I think it is very important to have Art for Life in hospitals and clinics - it brings a great sense of normalcy to the starkness of it all.”

To learn more about Arts for Life and opportunities to be a part of the program visit Fancy Pants Dance tickets can be purchased at


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