meet carrie: supporting sick kids in chicago through art

Carrie Spitler, Snow City Arts, People with Panache

Carrie with movie posters made for some of the kids’ films. In addition to executive director of Snow City Arts, Carrie is a community gardener, a beekeeper and a baker!

“Doctors find the illness, we find the artist.”

I’ve watched enough medical shows to feel those pangs in my heart, imagining just how strenuous and sad it must be to have a child—or be a child—experiencing an illness, especially a serious one. Snow City Arts takes an approach that I wouldn’t have expected to help sick kids stay on track with school while getting better: This nonprofit deploys a team of artists at hospitals in Chicago to work with kids on artistic, educational projects while they stay for extended treatment.

I first heard about this beautiful endeavor because of my boyfriend, Jim. Bringing his passion for music to a whole new dimension, he has served on the auxiliary board of Snow City Arts for about a year now. In support, we attended their annual Gallery Night last fall. Originally I partially agreed so I had an excuse to wear a fabulous dress, but once we got there, I was awestruck. Gallery Night showcased all of the artwork that the kids in the hospitals produce, from visual art including painting to 3D art to creative writing, video and music. All by artists under 18 years of age, the work was not only professional, it was impressive and smart, beautiful and funny and creative. I was completely blown away by the level of talent these kids have. We both were. These weren’t just kid “art projects.”

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago—Snow City Arts has partnered with the Chicago Loop Alliance for an event series called Activate. This year the theme is the five senses, so each event features a specific sense and is held in various locations throughout the Loop. There will be art and music and other interactive elements at each free event, and a portion of the beer proceeds goes to Snow City Arts. May 13 was the first Activate event—Touch. Dance music played and giant, gold air-filled pillows made for great hideouts from the rain in the alleyway. We’re looking forward to the next one: Hear!

Sometime between those two events, Jim and I realized that the executive director of Snow City Arts, Carrie Spitler, is such a Person with Panache! Jim connected me, and she and I got together to talk about her nonprofit career and her work with Snow City.

Carrie has been involved in the nonprofit world for a while, since she got her start at the Sive Group. The for-profit company consults for nonprofits and taught her a ton about fundraising and program development. Her first foray into working for the other side was at Access Living, a disability rights nonprofit. Then, right before Snow City Arts, she ran the Neighborhood Writing Alliance, a smaller organization that hosted workshops in under-resourced communities where adults could write about their personal experiences. They published the work in a journal called The Journal of Ordinary Thought, which sounds anything but ordinary.

Mia, Snow City Arts, People with Panache

Mia, a 6-year old student, was inspired by Andy Warhol to create this work of art. She first learned how to cut out the flower image in rubber blocks, and then created the final product through ink transfer and screen printing.

People with Panache: What brought you to Snow City Arts?

Carrie Spitler: Most of my work has a social justice or access component. For me, the arts tie-in was critical, and so was the idea that, although our work isn’t social justice-focused day to day, it comes down to access. We know that every year, children miss school because they’re in the hospital. They miss out on some sort of educational track. Snow City Arts really aims to fill that gap and ensure that they have access to education during treatment. We happen to use the arts. It’s a lot more engaging than having a math teacher stop by and say, “Do you want to do math?” Instead they hear, “I’m an artist. Do you want to make some art with me?” That’s really what drew me to Snow City.

PWP: What do you love about it?

CS: Every time I have an interaction with a student, there’s something awesome about them. A couple of years ago, we worked with a student who was in Chicago from Belize to get treatment, and she left in what we’d consider her senior year of high school—a really traumatic time to step away from your everyday. She was very focused on graduating on time with her class. Due to state law, there are Chicago Public School teachers in the hospital, and they see students if they’re expected to be in the hospital 10 consecutive days or more. In this case, we worked in partnership with CPS to ensure that she did graduate with her class. She was not well enough to leave the hospital, so with her nursing and clinical team, we put together a high school graduation for her in one of our idea labs. Her family came, and it was a really incredible, beautiful experience.

She worked with any and all of our artists. So we know her as a musician, a poet, a visual artist, a little bit of everything, a really curious young woman who said yes to pretty much anything we offered her. Those are the moments that I love about Snow City Arts.

One of our core best practices that is so critical is that we offer students a choice. When they’re in the hospital, if you think about it, they don’t have many opportunities to say yes or no. They may get to choose the flavor of their medicine that day, but they have to take it. And parents are rightfully so in high anxiety in those times so I think we play a critical role in giving kids space to be kids.

Carrie, SCA, peoplewithpanache.com

Carrie (middle) at Snow City’s annual Gallery Night event. “Thinking long term in many nonprofits like a homeless shelter or organizations who feed people, you would love to work yourself out of a job. That would mean we solved our housing problem and our food problem, but we think there will continue to be a gap in educational services so ensuring that our model adapts to the changing landscape in healthcare is a challenge.”

PWP: What is it like for your artists in the hospital, and what kind of art do they teach?

CS: We do filmmaking or media arts, visual art, theater, music and creative writing. Our team of artists is incredible; we’ve been very lucky. We have 10 right now, and about half have been with us 7 to 10 years. So they understand the atmosphere we’re working in. Flexibility is an understatement of our work—if we get set up and start painting or drawing or writing and somebody from the clinical team comes in, if it’s not a quick procedure, then we actually pack up and step out. So we can be interrupted all day long, every day, which is how it should be. Our role there is important, but it’s not clinical. That’s really why they’re in the hospital.

Our teaching artist team is so skilled at entering a room and saying, “What are you working on at school? What movies are you watching? What are you reading? What do you do in your free time?” and out of that casual, get-to-know-you conversation, pulling out a kernel of an idea that becomes an art project. That’s why I think the artwork is so good—because it comes from such an authentic space where the child is making the decisions. Along the way, the teaching artists are arming them with artistic skills, language, tools and, depending on what a student is working on, other learning standards. For example, creative writing is a huge vocabulary builder—you can learn about simile, you can learn how to deconstruct poetry. We have had a visual project on bridges that was all about geometry and culture—two completely different sections of learning standards. Our teaching artist team is what really makes our work stand out.

PWP: What do you hope to accomplish in the future?

CS: We are working diligently to expand to a new hospital partner. But the healthcare industry is rapidly changing, so we’re thinking about expansion in two ways: 1. Taking our current model to a brand new hospital system, and 2. Starting to think about how to adapt our model, which really serves young people who are inpatient in the hospital, to work with young people who are outpatient for treatment. Hospital stays are a lot shorter now than when Snow City Arts was founded 18 years ago. So, as healthcare continues to trend that way, we want to make sure our work is still viable and important and figure out what gap we can fill in those places.

PWP: What do you think got you to where you are today?

CS: I’m an interesting—not unique but interesting—executive director in that I didn’t come out of programming. That is a little more odd in the arts world—lots of arts organizations are still run by their founder, and they are often founded because they were an artist who wanted to make that kind of art or engage community. So I think one of the skills and bonuses that I have is that I started my career much earlier in fundraising, so I feel like when I look at some of my peers, some are more challenged by the grant writing, individual giving, those kinds of things, and I have a good foundation in that.

A lot of my approach to fundraising and managing is all about relationship building. It builds the kind of culture I want to foster, and because we’re this tiny non-profit working in these big hospital systems, the relationships that we have with our partners are critical. I prioritize those kinds of things.

I think being in management, you have to be comfortable with some level of ambiguity. Sometimes letting things sit in that space for a little while is the best thing you can do. And sometimes you have to let somebody on your team flounder around and figure something out. I can’t be THE problem solver, and I want to make sure I’m developing a team that is not just doing the work but developing their professional skills so by the time they leave Snow City Arts, they’re really ready for the next job. I had great people in my life do that, and I think it’s really important.

As someone who works in human resources consulting, I have to say I can’t agree more! Being a great boss really takes effort and thought, and it sounds like Carrie is doing a wonderful job.

We are so excited for Gallery Night 2016 on September 9—I went last year and it was an incredible night filled with amazing art (all done by the kids), tasty bites and a really cool silent auction! Sign up here. Also be on the lookout for Activate events with the Chicago Loop Alliance all summer. The events are free, but a portion of the beer proceeds goes to Snow City Arts! The next two are on June 9 and July 14.

[Photo by Kate and event photo, artwork and video provided by Carrie.]

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