When 10-year-old Trevor Penn got a role in a play about aliens, he was "happy, excited, glad and proud." For his mom Tanya Snyder, watching Trevor perform on the big screen was a welcome respite from an uncertain future.
Trevor, who is being treated for a brain tumor at Rush Children’s Hospital, took part in the play as a result of a program offered by Snow City Arts, a Chicago nonprofit organization. The program allows 4- to 19-year-old patients with a variety of illnesses at Rush, Stroger Hospital and Children’s Memorial Hospital a way to get their minds off being sick and spending time in the hospital. The kids make movies, act in plays and take classes in music, visual arts and creative writing.
The program meant that Trevor recently had a part in the program’s remake of the movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still" while being treated. Trevor, who lives in German Valley with his family, played a secretary of state who negotiated with the aliens in the movie, dressing up in a shirt, tie and top hat for the part.
Tanya Snyder says watching the movie at an SCA viewing several months ago was a "big deal" to her son and their family because his tumor is attached to his pituitary gland, potentially causing future blindness.
"It made him feel really good about himself and the fact that even with the scar (on his head from surgery), he was able to express himself on the silver screen," says Snyder.
But helping kids have fun and boosting their self-esteem are just two of the benefits of the Snow City Arts program, which was founded by Executive Director Paul Sznewajs in 1998.
"What we try to do is reconnect them (patients) with the learning process, one-on-one with staff several hours a week. It gives them something new to focus their energies on rather than leaving a void," says Sznewajs.
Rush has a special "idea room," where patients help with movie making and participate in art and music projects, with a full-size piano, guitars, computers, scanners, visual and digital cameras and art supplies. Patients helped with set design, built a robot and props and wrote the entire musical score and created sound effects.
In addition, patients who participate in SCA programs receive class credit from Chicago Public Schools. SCA also partners with Columbia College and the Smart Gallery on various programs for patients.
SCA, which has 15 artists in residence who help teach, also recognizes patients’ artistic efforts, displaying artwork on hospitals walls and Chicago galleries.
Reaching patients who may be undergoing painful radiation or chemotherapy with engrossing learning projects does wonders for kids’ psyches, says Robyn Hart, director of Child Life Services and a member of the SCA board of directors. Child Life Services works closely with SCA at the hospital.
"Any time children can take their minds off what’s causing them anxiety or even pain, it has therapeutic benefits," says Hart. "What’s really good for some kids, even though they can’t compete athletically, is they can make a video, write a song or do something that others who are well can’t do."
Mira Johnson, 13, who has sickle cell disease, says she appreciated playing a reporter in the movie, knowing most hospital patients don’t get such an opportunity. The Chicago teen wants to be a movie star and reveled in practicing for her part.
Mira’s mom, Tammy Warren Daniels, says when her daughter watched a DVD of the movie and saw herself in it, she exclaimed, "This part makes me so emotional, I want to cry."
Even chemotherapy didn’t keep James Golub, 16, of Highland Park, from creating and helping film a trailer of a zombie movie. SCA staff just kept coming back to the hospital when he was receiving chemotherapy to find the times when he had the energy to participate.
"It was cool to see my idea in the video," says Golub enthusiastically, even as he lay in a hospital bed receiving chemotherapy. "I learned a lot about how they work when they’re making a movie."
Susan Golub, James’ mom, said the experience was an awesome one for her son. And she was thrilled her son received course credit for a music theory class led by SCA staff.
"It was so nice because they e-mailed the school and I didn’t have to do anything. They made it really easy for me and gave me one less thing to worry about," she says.
For more information about Snow City Arts, visit www.snow
Janice Neumann is a writer who lives in Hyde Park with her mother, two dogs and three cats.