For those facing illnesses or disabilities, ‘alternative’ therapies—such as laughter, music or animal therapy—can offer a range of benefits. These local programs are doing their parts to make a difference.
Clowns on Call, Circus Flora (circusflora.org)
Every time Claire Wedemeyer comes to the hospital as Claire the Clown to visit young patients, she will hear from a nurse or a family member, That’s the first smile we’ve seen all day. That moment is the primary goal of Circus Flora’s Clowns on Call program. “For children, the hospital environment takes away all of their choices for the most part, but the clowns try to reverse that and put them in a position of control over their surroundings,” says Wedemeyer, who has been a professional clown for 12 years and spearheads the program.
Clowns on Call was launched in February 2012, inspired by similar programs around the country. Circus Flora founder David Balding wanted to have a more consistent outreach program and stronger presence in the community, Wedemeyer explains. “He wanted to take the entertainment out of the ring and bring the circus to the kids who couldn’t get there.”
Clowns on Call comes to two local hospitals—Mercy Children’s Hospital and SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center—once a week, conducting bedside visits and playroom shows. The visits serve several purposes, depending on the child’s situation. They may need a distraction from a procedure, and juggling or bumping into walls grabs their attention. Or they may be on their way to surgery and silly song provides a calming effect. “We try to cater to the patient’s needs and make them feel special. We try to bring our best material,” Wedemeyer says.
In the year since Clowns on Call began, the program has seen more than 1,500 children. With the upcoming addition of two more clowns, Wedemeyer looks forward to expanding the outreach, knowing that the effect they can have is much appreciated. “For those tired parents who are sitting by their children’s bedsides all day, if they can see their kids laugh, we have done our job.”
Midwest Music Therapy Services (midwestmusictherapy.com)
A therapist may play the guitar with his or her client, or help them isolate individual fingers to play the piano. They may sing songs to target specific sounds, or use music as a motivator in encouraging certain responses. With a range of outlets and targets, the evidence-based practice of music therapy has proven to make a difference for individuals with developmental disabilities, particularly autism. “I’ve see the effect music therapy can have, increasing communication and social skills, for example,” says Maria Carron, owner of Midwest Music Therapy Services. “It’s a non-threatening way to target and work on important skills.”
Carron, a graduate of Maryville University’s music therapy program, started her company in 2000 after seeing the need for more school- and home-based music therapy options. Midwest Music Therapy Services mostly works with individuals with autism throughout the St. Louis area. Music therapy targets behavior, social, cognitive, communication, motor and sensory skills. “We assess individuals and determine their skills level, what they’re motivated by musically and their music-based behaviors," Carron explains.
The company works with 200 to 250 clients ranging in ages, with the majority in the early childhood through elementary schools levels. Services are paid through the school district if individuals qualify, the State of Missouri’s Department of Mental Health, or private pay. The organization also offers several community groups, including the recently launched pilot program Rockabilities, a rock band specifically for teens and adults. “The main focus is social and communication skills, and music is such a nice facilitator of that because you have to work together, have peer interaction and really be present in the activity,” Carron says.
With research showing its benefits, including increased attention to tasks, improvement in fine and gross motor skills, better auditory processing and stimulated cognitive functioning, Carron knows the invaluable impact of music therapy. “We don’t work on musical skills specifically, but rather how we can use music to enhance the skills we’re targeting.”
Kids Rock Cancer
Launched in 2009 in conjunction with Maryville University’s music therapy program and area cancer treatment centers, Kids Rock Cancer offers a way for children to manage the impact of a cancer diagnosis and treatment through music. Working with a music therapist, they put their thoughts and feelings into writing, composing and recording a song. All sessions are provided free of charge to children and their families. In three years, Kids Rock Cancer has worked with more than 250 children. For more information, visit maryville.edu/kidsrockcancer.
TOUCH Program, Support Dogs (supportdogs.org)
In 1989, Support Dogs’ TOUCH Program graduated 12 dogs and their volunteers as the first teams trained to visit patients or residents in hospitals and nursing homes. Since that first year, 1,500 teams have graduated; and today, almost 300 are active participants, visiting a host of local facilities that also now include special school districts, rehab units and cancer centers. “The dogs help the patients or residents take their minds off their problems or illnesses, bringing some much-needed smiles and happiness,” says Support Dogs executive director Bill Dahlkamp.
Support Dogs started the TOUCH Program in response to multiple requests from the medical community for dog visitors, and it has grown exponentially through the years as more facilities recognize the validity of the service. Studies are now being conducted, documenting its tangible medical effects, Dahlkamp says. The benefits of pet visitation therapy are numerous, from lowering blood pressure to providing incentives to patients, particularly children. Some rehab facilities may incorporate the dogs into therapy, encouraging patients to walk the dog or throw balls for retrieval. The dog visitors also offer a pleasant distraction for families of residents or patients, as well as the facilities’ staff. “It’s a friendly visitor, a wet nose and a good interaction that makes the situation better,” Dahlkamp explains. “And some people may not care so much about seeing the dog, but they enjoy talking to the volunteer, so there’s that human interaction, as well.”
Potential volunteers submit an application and their dog undergoes a temperament evaluation, with dogs of all breeds welcomed. After passing the evaluation, teams take a 15-week certification course, learning to work better together and preparing for scenarios they will encounter on visits. Whether the patient is 2 years old or 110, has had a dog or never owned a pet, the TOUCH Program offers a diversion from their everyday struggles, Dahlkamp says. “It’s the one thing in these people’s days when someone isn’t telling them what they can or can’t do. It’s just a fun, relaxing interaction with a loving animal.”