CoachArt’s Bay Area office offers free athletic and arts enrichment programs to over 300 children (and their siblings), ages 5-18, with chronic illnesses in the East Bay every year. Nationally, there are 12 million children in the US who are living with chronic illness such as diabetes, cerebral palsy, cancer, HIV, and kidney failure. These children and their families often face insurmountable stress, financial difficulty, and depression. Children with serious illnesses can look and feel different from their peers, face fear and isolation. Their siblings can feel neglected and scared, and many are in pain.
They serve children through three core programs:
01. Home Lessons. Volunteers provide in-home instruction and activities for 8 weeks, such as cooking, to children who may be immunocompromised and travel to a club or studio is not possible.
02. CoachArt Clubs. Children participate in multi-week activities of their choice (usually for 8 weeks) at a CoachArt partner location, such a martial arts or dance studio.
03. Scholarships. CoachArt provides free scholarships at approved partner sites so children can participate in activities such as yoga, dance and music.
I had the honor of speaking with Program Director, Molly Dirr, at CoachArt’s downtown Oakland office:
24 East: When did you start to work here?
Molly Dirr: I started in 2011. It was a cool opportunity for me because I got to come on board as one of the first staff members here when we had zero kids, zero volunteers in the program, and was able to help build the program to what it is now. So it’s been a really special experience for me and I feel very proud to have brought this program up to the Bay Area and to be part of its success.
24E: What would you say is the most rewarding thing about working here?
MD: It’s being able to attend our program events and talk with the parents about their lives and about what they’ve been through. I think every parent wants their child to be happy, to have friends, to feel comfortable in their own body, to have places where they feel like they belong and they feel valued. I can’t imagine having a child in a wheelchair who wants to play baseball and not having a forum for them to be able to do that, or to have a child who wants to act and be in the theater but has to constantly step away to give themselves medication or miss practices. I love those moments when I get to speak with the parents about their experiences with CoachArt, and sit with them watching their child thriving and watching their child being praised and smiling, and doing the activities that they love.
24E:Is there anything you find people are surprised by when they visit a program and see the ability of the kids?
MD: I think every person who comes to one of our programs walks away with a new found appreciation for the kids in our program, or with a lesson learned. Early on for me I was working with a group of volunteers doing a cooking class for kids who had brain tumors and their siblings, and one of the volunteers was interacting with a family. It was a student in a wheelchair who appeared to be very despondent and so the volunteer started talking to the mom, asking the mom questions. What’s his name? You know things like that. The mother said, “You know he can understand everything you are saying, it just takes him a while to respond.” The volunteer had this moment of learning, of realizing ‘I shouldn’t make assumptions just because this young man is in a wheelchair and looks as if he might not be processing what I’m saying’. This was an opportunity for the volunteer to learn a lesson about how to communicate with kids in wheelchairs and to not jump to assumptions just because the child has a diagnosis or looks a certain way. CoachArt kids can surprise you every day.
24E: Why is it important to include the siblings in some of these programs with the kids?
MD: When CoachArt first started, we didn’t include siblings and there was a moment in the early days where we were doing an inpatient activity at one of the hospitals and Leah, our co-founder, overheard this little girl ask, “Mommy when’s it my turn to have cancer.”
There was this moment where she realized what was behind that comment, because from this little 6 year-old’s perspective, she was seeing her sister get extra attention, go to special appointments, get gifts, and get extra affection from her parents. It was that moment when it occurred to Leah that these children are suffering too. Siblings might be neglected, they might have a lot of fear, resentment, anxiety… isolation. They are getting pulled out of school to go to different appointments. Their family might be financially strained, so the siblings are impacted in a different way but are most definitely impacted by the illness. So now we welcome siblings in the programs. We treat them as equals, we let them choose their own activities.
24E: What do you like about working in Oakland?
MD: I like everything about working here. The first Friday of every month we start hearing the buzz, and the whole art community is outside our door. The Warriors won last year and the parade went by our office. People are so active in this community, we love looking out the window and hearing protests, hearing people speak up for what they believe in. So I really feel like there’s no better place to do this work than a place like Oakland. I feel like people are out of their houses, people are in the community. They want to interact. Every time I’m on the elevator people are striking up conversations with me. I’ve heard that word community used a lot but it’s real here.
I also met with volunteer, Holly Pope at In the Groove Studios in downtown Oakland to experience her martial arts class. She is ever-graceful, dedicated, and beyond warm; and she uses her unique background and skills to make a difference in children’s lives.
24E: How did you hear about CoachArt and when did you start volunteering?
HOLLY POPE: I had been wanting to do some type of volunteering, although I wasn’t sure where, with who or what. CoachArt found me, through my husband’s website (www.stillnessinmotion.com). Molly came to meet with us, and I knew right away that I wanted to work with them in some capacity. I began teaching the MartialArts Club to children with Cerebral Palsy in September 2015.
24E: What activities do you do with the children and what are their favorite aspects?
HP: We use a hitting pad and an exercise ball, and a rope for tug-o-war. The kids love the action, and seeing, sensing and feeling what their bodies can do.
24E: Is there a particular interaction participating in a CoachArt program that made an impact on you?
HP: Listening to how children want and need to be instructed and being able to adjust in the moment. I have to work with the way nature is and not try to change or alter it, but to harmonize with it.
Get Involved! Begin your CoachArt volunteer journey. CoachArt offers a number of volunteer opportunities for those who can teach lessons in photography, dance, cooking, tennis, and more. One hour a week for 8-12 weeks. The February Volunteer Training is on 2/23/16 from 6:30-8:00pm. For more information, visit online today.
Inspired to give? CoachArt offers FREE programs to children with chronic illness. Support a program by donating here.