The Sarakasi Trust Hospital Project was founded in 2006 by Fernande Verwiel an experienced nurse. Fernande had the passion, vision and skill of reaching out to hospitalised children through the arts. She approached Sarakasi Trust with this idea of art in medicine for holistic healing and under Sarakasi’s wing a pilot was initiated in Mater Hospital. This pilot, led by the founder with the support of one volunteer and 2 artists, initiated a series of art-based activities (clowning, art and puppetry) aimed to positively distract the minds of children at the Mater Hospital most of whom were admitted for short term illnesses like haemophilia and pending heart surgeries. The success of the pilot was marked by faster recovery process for the children as reported by the Mater Hospital Head Nurse. The parents of the sick children, whom, hitherto, had not appreciated the value and relevance of art to healing, participated in the artistic activities and developed a deep appreciation of the project’s results. Subsequently these results gave the team a better grasp of the project’s impact. In 2009 the project was handed over to Mater Hospital following its successful adoption.
The project narrowed its focus to underprivileged children in vulnerable circumstances by virtue of socio-economic reasons. As an edutainment program it now reaches out to vulnerable and underprivileged children in rehabilitation facilities, rescue centres, youth prisons, HIV/Aids centres, public hospitals and the open community. This focus was guided by:
1. The relatively lengthy hospital stays (especially for children suffering from terminal illnesses). While a good number of children are admitted for shorter periods, a relatively large number would be hospitalised for an average of 1-3 years. During this time the children were unoccupied, unaccompanied and lacked the positive experiences that their average counterparts enjoy. Sample the biggest referral hospital where this project works in. With 78% of patients in Kenyatta National Hospital being from low economic background, parents are unable to visit regularly or even pay hospital bills. This means that lack family support through medically tough times, miss out on school and other inalienable rights (e.g. right to play, learn). In extreme cases they are totally abandoned by family altogether . Additionally
2. Children’s rights: These are rights that hitherto are either regarded by institutions and communities as luxuries. This is not to place the blame on these institutions and communities; rather appreciates the challenges faced by them. Within the Kenyan, and by extension African, settings most rights enshrined and promulgated in the UNCRC are viewed as luxuries e.g. rights to play.
3. Poor parents and caregivers provide little or no resources towards play for exploration and learning. Children and young people’s efforts are diverted towards economic activities (e.g. selling vegetables etc). A thin line is actually crosses towards child labour as evident in UNICEF reports.
4. Degree of vulnerability negative outcomes if their potential is not discovered at an early age: They face higher risk of not completing their education due to socio-economic reasons. This transcends to criminal activities as depicted by high crime rates in the slums of Kenya. Entertainment is vital as it creates a fun atmosphere for children and young people to forget and "unlearn" bad experiences. Then art is an expression that connects them to their feelings. For STHP, also, art is a neutral means-a gateway- to other passions that children and young people have. There are many stories where young people in prisons took up honest blue-colored jobs after various artistic interventions that were a lesson to them e.g. drama sessions designed to teach, musical sessions that allowed them to listen to inspiring lyrics or allowed them to write a creative poem connecting them to their passions.
This project now reaches out to more than 8000 children and young people each year. It has institutionalised and created awareness about play and art as a right for each child within the most bureaucratic and conservative government institutions. A total of ii different institutions and centres are currently benefiting from the learning and development of play and art as a service towards the benefit of children in their custody. STHP has received accolades and media acknowledgement as a pioneer project in Kenya addressing issues of children self esteem and skill development using art and play. It enjoys support of a local and international community of businesses and persons who donate money and time to the cause. STHP also provided ground for research into the relationship between healing, art and play.