By Krystin Gehrich
Imagine going to work every day expecting to encounter sick children and distressed families who depend on you to make a scary hospital experience bearable. A typical day can involve prepping a teen for an IV or entertaining an ill toddler so his mother can get lunch. Or even fingerprinting a youngster who has died, so that her parents can have a small keepsake of her life.
For Ohio University family-studies majors enrolled in the child-life concentration, these are the realities of the profession they've chosen. Despite the often heart-wrenching aspects of the job, students say they are drawn by the chance to make a difference with their work.
As a result, the 2-year-old child-life program, housed in the School of Human and Consumer Sciences, is thriving. More than a dozen students have completed the curriculum to become certified child-life specialists.
"All of us are in a helping profession for a reason," senior Katie Haver said. "It can be very challenging, but there is a balance between having compassion for a child who is dying and being able to have an impact. It's a great feeling to know I'm right where I should be."
Jenny Chabot, an associate professor of child and family studies, initiated the program in 2006. The child-life concentration prepares students for the unique intersection of medicine, family studies and child development involved in being a certified child-life specialist. Such helping professionals are trained to work with patients and their families under stressful health-care circumstances such as in children's hospitals, outpatient clinics and hospice centers.
The concentration arose largely because of the desire of three former OU students who wanted to learn more about the field.
"There was the occasional student who expressed interest in child life," Chabot said, "but they were kind of on their own until three young women started (OU's) child-life student organization in 2005." The three, Kelly Ely, Nathasja Beelen and Ashley Moszkowicz Wood, were juniors at the time, and "those three started to step it up," Chabot said.
So did Chabot. In fall 2006, she took a four-month sabbatical to complete a 560-hour internship at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. While there, she developed the first child-life courses that would be offered to family-studies majors: Introduction to Child Life, Children and Families in Healthcare Settings, and Professional Practices in Child Life. Chabot then completed a written exam in May 2007 that enabled her to become a practicing child-life professional. With that experience under her belt, she began to teach OU's courses in fall 2007.
Patty Hirt, a 2007 graduate, was one of the first students to go through the program. "It's changed a lot, and for the better," she said. "Now there are more classes specifically for child life, people are more interested in it, and there's also a graduate program now."
Hirt, who now works as a certified child-life specialist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, was one of six alumni who returned to Athens in November to speak to Chabot's child-life class about her professional experiences and about applying for competitive practicums, internships and jobs.
Jacquie Wludyga, also a 2007 graduate, described an encounter that affirmed why she loves her job.
"A little boy had an infection in his mouth and his throat was swollen. When the doctor came in to see him, he was really scared, and he grabbed his mom's hand -- and then he grabbed my hand. It was memorable that he could identify me as a safe person after I had only spent a short minute with him. It's great when you know from the kids that you did a great job. Not from the parents, not from your boss, but from the kids."
Students who complete the child-life concentration are competitive candidates in the job market, Chabot said. And when it comes to landing an internship, alumni credit the strong family-studies background they received at their alma mater and the broad knowledge of human development at every level -- factors they say gave them advantages that students from other programs may not have.
"I come from a very well-rounded background," Wludyga said. "What I really draw on in child life is working with families in other arenas, even outside the hospital setting. I know now that you can't take the child out of the context of his or her family."
Junior Kelley Ammons says Chabot's dedication to her students is what makes the program special.
"She wants all of us to do so well and truly cares," Ammons said. "I think that's rare, and her taking her sabbatical and internship to teach this all to us proves that. Without her, none of this would be possible."
Chabot credits her students' success to their dedication to the program and willingness to work hard to get what they want from the field.
"It's not an easy program," Chabot said. "Students really have to work hard."
As evidence of that dedication, she points to the December trip that 17 of the students took in December to Give Kids the World Village in Kissimmee, Fla. The students gave up their winter break to volunteer at the nonprofit resort, which gives children with life-threatening illnesses a chance to enjoy a free stay for up to seven days. The resort includes 100 colorfully decorated villas and entertainment designed for children with special needs.
"It's a land of yeses in a world where all these kids hear is no," Chabot said. "It's a magical, amazing place."
Ammons organized the trip this year as part of OU's Child Life Student Organization. This winter was her second visit to the resort.
"You can see their faces when they first arrive, tired and drained from whatever they're going through," she said. "Then, a few days later, you see them smiling. They leave with hope."
The group helped serve food at the Gingerbread House buffet, run the Amberville Train Station that drives families to different destinations throughout the village, participated in nightly activities like Village Idol (think American Idol with kid contestants), took photos of the children with their favorite cartoon characters or superheroes, and assisted with arts and crafts activities throughout the resort.
It takes about 10,000 volunteers per week to assist the families who come to stay in the resort, Ammons said. And though the days were long, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., she found the work extremely rewarding.
"We're making a difference. We contribute to those people's days and making them happy," she said.
Students interested in the child-life concentration in the School of Human and Consumer Sciences can contact Jenny Chabot at email@example.com or 740-593-2871.