Caring Arts of Oak Park brings music, colors and smiles to local cancer patients

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By Community Editor

COURTESY OF CARING ARTS FOUNDATION

Imagine a drug, free to everyone, accessible whenever you need it, that has the ability to temporarily reduce or relieve pain, raise or lower your blood pressure, reduce anxiety and over all make you feel better. Sounds miraculous, right? In fact, that "drug" exists in each and every one of us. It's called "Creativity."

Today there are many scientific studies that attest to the positive impact that the arts has on people, especially sick people. But in 2000 when the Caring Arts Foundation (formerly known as "Strike at Cancer") first started putting that belief to work, that notion wasn't so widely embraced.

"Our first hospital partner was Children's Memorial Hospital," says Barbara Weigand, co-founder and program director for the Foundation. "I remember telling the artists and musicians there to lay low, don't get in anyone's way and don't talk about the Foundation, just to do what they're trained to do, which is to engage and gently encourage patients and family members to try their hand at something creative." 

"Once the hospital workers started to hear from the families how much they valued the opportunity to take part in the art, music or photography, everyone started to take notice," says Weigand. "Now we have hospitals contacting us to inquire how they might work with us."

With its focus on oncology, Caring Arts has a number of artists from many artistic disciplines in place at some of the largest and best cancer centers in Chicago: University of Chicago Hospitals (children & adults, inpatient & outpatient); Rush University Hospital (adult outpatient & radiology oncology); Lurie Children's Hospital (outpatient clinic); Lurie Cancer Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. They also partner with other organizations that share its mission to improve the lives of local cancer patients and family members, including TLC Day Camp for Children with Cancer and Gilda's Club Chicago.

The Foundation trains high-caliber professional artists and musicians from the community to work within a hospital environment. Each artist is also required to go through the hospitals' Volunteer program, to learn the requirements of each institution. They also are required to have background checks, annual TB tests, flu shots, etc.

"It's no small commitment for artists to work with us," says Weigand. "Each has to have the right personality, empathy and respect, in addition to their outstanding talents. Patients are struck by their kindness as well as their skills, which are prodigious." 

Take painter, Jordi Pedrola. Originally from Barcelona, Spain, Jordi has lived in Chicago since 1996 and is now a permanent resident. With a Master's degree in fine art from the University of Bareclona and a Fellowship from the Winchester School of Art in England, Jordi's paintings have been shown all over the world, and are included in the permanent collections of a number of Art Musuems. Many of the patients he encounters wouldn't have a clue about his resume, because when Jordi makes hospital rounds with his portable art studio in tow, it's all about the patient. 

"I bring colors and smiles," says Jordi. It also doesn't hurt that he's bi-lingual. Jordi is often tapped at the hospitals to serve as interpreter, and he's a big hit with the Latina painting group at Gilda's Club. But Jordi brings not only painting supplies and gentle encouragement, he brings emotional healing. Gilda's Club member, Ken Crane says he is grateful for the respite from cancer that painting provided to him and his wife, Charmaine, who passed away in 2012. 

"For someone who is dealing with a serious disease, art is really the best thing they can do," says Crane. "It offers an escape from worrying, medical procedures and things like that. And I can't say enough good things about Jordi He has such a wonderful way of seeing the world." 

Music brings its own form of relief. Caring Arts musicians, Petar Kecenovici (cellist) and Bill Syniar (guitarist), are world class musicians. Petar has performed live with the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Sting, while Bills was former bass player for the rock band Survivor and has written music for The Doobie Brothers and other National acts. Patients at the hospitals where they perform may not know their resumes, but they know talent when they hear it.

"Having the Caring Arts performances to look forward to makes treatment more tolerable," says Bridget Hanson, Recreational Therapist at University of Chicago Hospitals. "Many patients now try to schedule their treatment to coincide with the musicians' appearances. To me, it's mind-blowing that a person actually looks forward to coming to the hospital because they want to hear the music!"

At a Caring Arts fundraiser, Ann Hamilton of Valparaiso, Indiana, shared her daughter's experience with Bill and his special brand of humor at the Children's Hospital.

"My daughter, Celia, was diagnosed with cancer when she was 4 years old," said Ann. One Thursday, we came for her regular appointment and we met Bill. He didn't have needles or a stethescope. He had a guitar, a smile and a joke. He teased Celi and tried to get her to sing. Little did he know how important he became that day, because he made her laugh. Celia came to look forward to her regular hospital appointments because she would see her friend Bill." 

"Celia may have lost her battle with cancer, but I will always be grateful to these dedicated people who gave my daughter fun and laughter."

This summer, Caring Arts is taking their message about the positive impact of the arts in healing to the streets. They plan to have a presence at a number of local art fairs where they will showcase and sell donated works of art, provide musical performances and share info with community members interested in helping to support their work.

Join Caring Arts at their home base in Oak Park on Saturday, May 17 for "What's Blooming on Harrison," an art fair in the Oak Park Arts District on Harrison Street between Austin Ave & Ridgeland. Donated works of art will be on sale at the Caring Arts booth from 10am-6pm to benefit the Foundation. All purchases are tax deductible and go directly to benefit Caring Arts.

"What's Blooming on Harrison" will also feature a wide selection of local fine art, musical performances, food, activities for kids and the shops, restaurants and galleries along Harrison Street.

For more info on the event visit the arts district website

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