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Jean Baruch, a pediatric oncology nurse, was good at hanging IV bags and checking vital signs, but she had a harder time helping her young patients deal with the emotional effects of having cancer. "I wanted to encourage them to express their pain and fear, but I didn't know how," she says. "It was very frustrating."
She discovered a solution while working at one of Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang summer camps. The camp, which hosts children and families coping with cancer and other serious illnesses, gave Baruch unique insight into how kids play. She noticed that campers of all ages love beading. They spend hours making necklaces and bracelets, then trade or share them with friends and family. "The kids wear the beads for days at a time, even in the shower," she notes. "It seems to make them feel good."
Hoping that beads could cheer up young cancer patients in hospitals the same way they do at camp, Baruch founded Beads of Courage in 2004.
Children who participate in the program receive colored beads that represent milestones, procedures, and acts of bravery. For instance, they get a yellow bead for an overnight hospital stay, a white one for chemotherapy, and a glow-in-the-dark bead for radiation treatment. It's not uncommon for children to amass 10, 20 -- even 35 -- feet of beads. It helps young patients track and celebrate their progress, but it also gives them a way to get through upcoming procedures, says Gwendolyn Possinger, the coordinator of Children's Memorial Hospital's Beads of Courage program in Chicago. "A child facing another needle can look at his beads and realize that he made it through before so he can do it again," she says.
Today the nonprofit organization supports more than 10,000 children in 60 hospitals in the United States, Japan, New Zealand, and Ireland and is funded exclusively by private donations. With the help of participating hospitals, Beads of Courage is also constantly evolving. Baruch and her team have expanded the program to include many conditions and diseases. They also focus on other ways the arts can help families dealing with a serious illness.
The program has been invaluable to children like 9-year-old Rena Miller, of Chicago, who underwent treatment for leukemia that included frequent spinal taps and chemotherapy. When she was rushed to the hospital at midnight a few years ago, she had one consolation: She would get two beads for bravely enduring her hospitalization. The new beads joined hundreds of others on 10 long strands that represent her three-plus-year fight to beat cancer. "Rena reads her beads like a book," says her mother, Danya Miller. "She presents them with pride: 'This is when I first learned how to swallow pills,' for instance. It's a simple but powerful way to remember our journey."