Art Therapy Helps Kids at Local Hospitals

Kate Martin takes her passion for art to sick kids with local nonprofit Tracy’s Kids.

Photograph courtesy of Kate Martin

Kate Martin remembers being a teenager—years filled with awkward moments, high school crushes, hurtful gossip.

Lucky for her, she had an outlet when she needed to escape: her art.

“I’ve always been artistic,” she says, “but I used it a lot when I was going through a rough time as a teenager, as a way to process it all.”

It wasn’t until after college that Martin started to consider the possibilities of art therapy as an actual job. A few years after starting her own business, Ashima, selling yoga bags and eye pillows handcrafted from recycled and salvaged materials, she had the idea of helping children and teenagers dealing with even more difficult situations—living with cancer, for instance. “I realized you could work in hospitals and schools and all kinds of different places to help people through the creative process,” she says.

Martin went back to school and got her master’s in art therapy at George Washington University. Now you can find her at the Lombardi Cancer Center of the Georgetown University Children’s Medical Center, where she works for Tracy’s Kids, a nonprofit art-therapy program.

The program is set up at Lombardi and four other medical centers in an open-studio format. Walk into Lombardi’s lobby, for example, and you’re likely to find patients with their siblings and parents, drawing a picture or using a kiln to finish their pottery. It’s up to each child to decide what kind of art project he or she wants to do that day, explains Martin. “While the kids are going through medical treatments they have a lot of control taken away from them, so being able to come into the art area and choose their own colors and media gives them back that sense of control.”

The eye pillows sold at Whole Foods come wrapped like a wonton. Photograph courtesy of Ashima

In the case of one young girl, the program was therapeutic not only for her as a patient, but also for the art therapists and medical staff. The girl, who missed her senior year of high school as she went through chemotherapy treatments, created what Martin calls an “altered book.” She took a volume she was familiar with and added her own art to it—from motivational quotes to help her get through draining treatments to drawings of fairies jumping across the pages. “It was a really interesting way to chart her journey through the ups and downs of going through chemo,” Martin recalls. It also “allowed art therapists to understand how the patient viewed herself, her treatment, and the treatment team at the hospital.”

Martin started her work with Tracy’s Kids in May, and has since decided to contribute more to the program than her time as an employee. Martin and her parents, who handle the sewing and marketing aspects of Ashima, have partnered with Tracy’s Kids and will donate 10 percent of the business’s profits to the art program.

Ashima’s eye pillows are particularly popular and can be found at various yoga studios and Whole Foods in the area. They’re filled with flax seeds and come in scents such as lavender, eucalyptus, and peppermint. Martin says a lot of customers find that the pillows provide relief from headaches and migraines, and help with breathing when allergies kick in.

Ashima recently released more eye pillows designed for children, including designs featuring Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat.

Participants of Tracy’s Kids will have their artwork showcased at Carroll Square’s Art Gallery from December 9 to January 13. For more information on Tracy’s Kids, visit the Web site. For a list of locations that carry Ashima products, click here.