On a recent Thursday morning, Landen Cooper, 6, learned sign language as he sat at a playroom table on the 11th floor of Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
Sitting next to him was Sarah Smith, the hospital teacher and school liaison who also invited a sign language teacher and two student volunteers from Forest Hills Central High School to join them for the morning.
“You just learned 10 signs. How do you feel?” asked volunteer teacher Kimberly Williamson.
“Good!” Landen shouted.
Normally, Landen would be with his classmates in school. But hospital stays can make normal routines nearly impossible.
Nearly, but not entirely.
This is exactly why Smith gathers any interested patients every weekday from 10:30-11:30 a.m. for Club TCB in the 11th floor playroom. The acronym means Taking Care of Business. The club provides hands-on activities and academic enrichment during the school year.
If patients can’t make it to the playroom, they can watch a video on their hospital TV. They can also have an activity packet delivered to their room.
“We’re trying to mimic a little bit of the school day they are missing,” Smith said. “This gives them a distraction from why they’re here and brings a normal routine to a very abnormal setting.”
That special someone
So far in the 2016-17 school year, 580 children have attended Club TCB in the 11th floor playroom and 1,003 have participated from their hospital rooms.
Club TCB is just one small piece of Smith’s job. As the leader of the hospital school program, she serves school-age children in the hospital, helping them balance educational and medical needs.
This includes individually tutoring some students, coordinating with patient’s home schools, working with parents to help keep their children on track with schoolwork, coordinating volunteers and much more.
“When I tell people that I’m a teacher in the hospital, they often say, ‘Of course there’s someone who does that, but I never thought about it,’” Smith said.
A Michigan-certified educator with 14 years of experience as a high school English teacher, Smith loves her job.
“It’s such an honor to serve in this role,” she said. “Our families have so much on their plates. … If school is a situation we can help with, it takes away one tiny piece.”
Smith landed the job in 2011, just months after Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital opened its new building. She’s the fifth person to hold the job in the Spectrum Health system. The hospital school program is funded philanthropically through the hospital’s foundation.
Creativity, joy and magic
In September 2015, Smith provided school intervention services to 50 children who had frequent or lengthy hospitalizations at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. By January 2017 that number skyrocketed to 160.
Russ Hoekstra, manager of Child Life Services, attributes the jump to an overall increase in the number of patients being treated at the hospital, as well as longer stays for many patients.
About 65 percent of patients who use the hospital’s school program services are from hematology and oncology, followed by pulmonology and nephrology, Smith said.
Hoekstra praised Smith for her ability to meet the needs of such a wide range of children.
“From the eager-to-learn 5-year-old that loves to gobble up knowledge, to that anxious teenager with a lot of homework on his plate—she has an uncanny ability to work with all of these kids,” Hoekstra said.
Smith recently received one of the highest honors for her vocation—the 2017 Nan Songer Distinguished Member Award from the Association of Pediatric Hematology Oncology Educational Specialists. She accepted the award the first week of May at the group’s annual conference in Florida, Hoekstra said.
Smith is often lauded for the joy and creativity she brings to the job.
She and other members of the Child Life team recently made national headlines for creating a Great Gatsby-themed prom for Corinne Bass, an 18-year-old patient whose illness forced her to miss her high school prom.
Smith and her team also created some magic for a patient who had to miss a school trip to Chicago—they brought a bit of the Windy City to the hospital. They hosted fish-themed activities based on what the child would have seen at Shedd Aquarium, then they dressed up like the Blue Man Group and offered their own performance.
“We thought, ‘Let’s give you a little bit of what you’re missing,’” she said.
In the fall she organized a back-to-school event where patients could pack a bag of school supplies and visit academic stations, all to get them excited about school.
These are the fun, attention-getting parts of Smith’s job. There are less glitzy pursuits she considers just as important.
She spends hours making phone calls and sending emails to coordinate school work with children’s home schools. She and her specially trained volunteers—retired teachers, professors and medical students—labor with patients to pass tests and complete coursework so they won’t fall behind in school.
“I have an amazing team of volunteers,” Smith said. “And I really couldn’t do this without them.”
She remembers helping a high school student who missed a few days of school each week during the school year. She sought an extension from the school, and over the summer she worked with the student, proctoring his tests so he could pass his classes.
The following fall, an oversight at the school had him register for the same classes again. Smith helped the family navigate the issue to ensure the student could move on to new classes.
“These are lifelong permanent interventions we can do for kids,” she said.
Smith also works with parents and schools to help children re-engage once they’re discharged from the hospital, getting them in back-to-school shape.
“My job is to bridge the gap,” she said. “They might look and feel different, but they’re still the same kid.”
In the club
One thing Smith’s job requires is flexibility. She never knows how many kids might show up for Club TCB. And inevitably, their ages and ability levels will vary.
On the recent Thursday when she met Landen for the first time, two other patients attended—including Justin.
Justin’s mother, Lilly Corbett, looked happy to bring him to Club TCB, especially since he underwent heart surgery just two days earlier.
“He needs to get out and move around,” she said. “I think this is really good for him.”
They were joined by Williamson, the Forest Hills Central sign language teacher, and her students, Emily Toppen and Nicholas Bethel. Williamson brings students once a month to Club TCB.
Smith said she enjoys getting community members to help with the students.
She has used volunteers from the West Michigan Aviation Academy, as well recruiting a librarian for story time and a science professor who leads the children in hands-on science experiments.
There are more—many more.
Smith calls it a club so the kids know it’s meant to be fun.
Every club, she tells them, must have a secret handshake.
“Elbow. Elbow. Clap, clap, clap,” she says to the kids. “Now, you are officially in the club.”