Kenya Child Life Program Spotlight Continues: Liz Kabuthi

 

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Liz Kabuthi prepares children for surgery using a book of photos

Last week, I spotlighted the work of Child Life Specialist Jayne Kamau at the Sallie Test Pediatric Centre at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kenya. This sustainable Child Life program is one of a kind in East Africa. The Child Life staff and founder Morgan Livingstone are especially proud  this year to be working with Courtney Moreland of  Child Life United to offer child life practicums in Kenya.

This week, we hear from Liz Kabuthi, who I had the pleasure of meeting when she represented her country as a delegate at the Child Life Council International Summit on Pediatric Psychosocial Care in 2014. Her reflections on her child life journey and work are deeply moving, and give us a glimpse at how this profession influences and betters our lives even outside of the actual hospital work.

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Liz prepares a parent for her child’s surgery

LIZ KABUTHI

What inspired you to become a CLS?

Mine was by default. I had never heard of Child Life prior to 2010. I was looking for something new to do after working with mothers for a long duration. I came across the advert and had  a training in psychosocial care of pediatric patients. I applied and never thought much about it. In fact I did not know I would manage to work with children. This is the best decision I have ever made.

 

What was the biggest challenge to attaining your goal?

The Child Life Certification exam was a great challenge for me. Preparation required intense  revision which made me feel inadequate to take the exam.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

My job has made me a better mother to my children. I am able to exercise more patience and I allow expression and verbalization of feelings. I play more with my children and provide daily opportunities for outdoor play. My nieces and nephews have severally crowned me as Best Aunty since I play and get silly with them and always seize every opportunity to play. Child life has equipped me knowledge on child development and favorite play resources for different ages.

 

What do you want people worldwide to know about your program?

Kenya Child Life program caters to the psychosocial needs of the mainly poor majority in Kenya. In resource poor settings, we use our skills to work with children and their families different from  the use of technology and toys. The use of outdoor play time is an integral part of Kenya Child Life. In my culture a playing child is deemed less serious and with no potential for future success. Child life has taught me about play being a medium through which children learn about life and explore their environment and that  a playing child is a normal child. This has made me create awareness amongst families and in schools on the importance of play for children.

 

Can you share a brief story about a child who taught you something?

I met Peter almost 8 years ago. He had been rescued from an abusive home environment. He was mentally challenged, could not walk, was mute and ate like a dog.  His grandmother used to chain him all day in a dark room as she went to fend for her family. Peter could not eat from a plate, he would spill the food on the ground and munch away on all fours like a dog. He was a terrible sight!

My work rota provided that I work with Peter 3 days a week. I needed to make sure that Peter was cleaned and fed. This was a very difficult task for me and I would detest the days when I had to work with him. It made me feel awfully frustrated. We had to diaper him because many times he would eat his own poop! It reached a point where I made a decision to get a changeover to another unit or resign in order to stay away from Peter. Despite my frustration I kept at it, forming bonds of friendship little by little.

One day as I contemplated this decision, on my usual day at work, I walked in to the Sally Test Paediatric Centre to the sound of Peter calling my name. He was joyfully crawling towards me. I could not believe my eyes or ears!…..it tore into the deepest  part of my heart… the heart of a mother! At that point my heart changed and I started seeing Peter differently.

Peter taught me that truly love conquers all. We managed to take care of Peter till he found a special school that would teach him basic skills. On the day that Peter left, I cried because I had lost a friend that had taught me a most simple lesson on love that has huge benefits in life.

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Liz with a patient who acts as a prefect, assisting other patients

Camp Klicek: A Dose of Nature and the Universal Language of Play

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I remember the endless swath of time that summer brought when I was a young child. Unstructured free time in nature, with neighborhood kids, and my family. I also played alone, exploring the back roads on my bike and the woods on foot. At the age of seven, I would be gone for hours, playing in brooks, creating forts under the shelter of giant boulders, climbing trees, making up stories in my head, and writing poetry.

These days, we are hard put to find children at play in this kind of open-ended, unsupervised milieu. Their play is planned, highly structured by adults, and often close-ended. When left to their own devices, kids often choose tablets, smart phones and video games as their go to. Child life specialists and hospital play specialists know the value of deep, open-ended play that encourages self-expression, exploration, self-regulation, social development, and problem solving. My friends at the Klicek Foundation in the Czech Republic provide these play opportunities at their summer camp for children and families affected by illness and loss. This year, they invited me to partake in a unique camp experience, and I immersed myself in the healing environment of Camp Klicek, which has been in operation since 1992.

 

Children after a long-term therapy (and sometimes even patients under treatment, if their health allows it) take part in the camp, as well as their friends, siblings, parents and pets. Several bereaved families come too.

Our camp activities began as an attempt to offer a two-week stay in beautiful natural surrounding also to those children who couldn’t participate in a “normal” summer camp. We have always tried to create a friendly, open-hearted and open-minded atmosphere in our camps, and we hope that the camp program gives its participants enough opportunities to have fun, to do some useful work, to talk about things that are important to them, to simply be with friends.

The camp games and plays (mostly non-competitive) follow the make-believe story of a man who decided to spend some time with nature and is thus confronted with new situations and thoughts and starts to meditate on his own life and on the civilization he lives in.

Children live in big Indian “tee-pee” tents which are able to accommodate up to six inhabitants and have a fireplace inside.

Since 2000, we organize our camps on a meadow just behind the respite hospice building at Malejovice – thanks to this, children whose condition requires special attention can also participate in the camp program, backed by the safe environment of our house.

 

    klicek.org

 

Indeed, I found myself amidst a remarkable mix of campers and staff, a combination of people and circumstances that is hard to imagine anywhere else. The youngest camper was seven years of age, the oldest, twenty. The children’s diagnoses differed significantly, as did their abilities, disabilities, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. There were children undergoing treatment, survivors of serious illness, siblings, friends, parents, and bereaved parents who had lost a child. The camp leaders, Jiri and Marketa, are purposeful in their choice to bring children and adults together where they might not otherwise interact in larger society. Watching connections form between the campers and staff of varied backgrounds was a blessing on so many levels.

The focus of our days involved living in nature, eating good, healthy food, exploring tough topics such as “What is evil?” and “How can we make the hospital experience more pleasant?”, and above all, building community. The virtual lack of technology at camp was so refreshing. I felt myself detoxing from my smartphone addiction as I wrapped myself in nature, old fashioned, simple play, and grand company.

Many friends have asked me what it was like for me to be surrounded by children who spoke Czech. Did I learn any Czech? How did I communicate with them? Well, I was immersed in a foreign language – of that there is no doubt. Most children spoke no more than a few words or phrases in English, and my Czech is abysmal. But the children understand more English than they speak, and play is a universal language.  The children’s welcoming of me was profound, inviting me into play, making me feel immediately part of the group. “Frisbee?” “Will you play?” “Come play football.” “Ping pong?” “Draw.” Once engaged in a game or project, there was much good will and laughter as we all tried our best to communicate.

I too, grew my Czech vocabulary one word and gesture at a time. I made it my goal over the week to learn everyone’s name – a challenging feat with names that were not familiar to me.  But with each name and greeting, I could see the rapport growing, the shy kids responding, the teens warming. Some of my favorite moments were when I would board the 1970’s retro bus for a field trip, and a kid would smile at me and pat the seat beside them to show they’d been saving it for me. Or that wonderful moment, when the quietest camper, one who spent much time alone and looked down or sideways rather than meeting your gaze, took my hand as I stepped off the bus and walked quietly with me to our destination.

It’s the small stuff, really.

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Children berry picking on a picnic in Czech countryside

 

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Klicek Foundation cofounder Marketa leading us in a trivia game in the camp’s mess tent, where we ate all of our meals.

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In my next several posts, I will dive deeper into some of the activities we did, the games we played, the lessons I learned.