October 2016

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“Adults are obsolete children,” said Theodor Seuss Geisel, or Dr Seuss, as he has come to be known. Perhaps more than any other children's author, Dr Seuss is recognised as the chief advocate of the childlike. He wrote of the childlike capacity for wonder, resilience and compassion. He lamented the loss of these capacities in adulthood. But, like a child, he was hopeful they could be recovered. It's more than fitting then that the works of Dr Seuss should be part of a remarkable programme created by medical students at the Faculty of Medicine of UWI St. Augustine.

The Bedtime Stories Initiative (BTSI) is an activity through which volunteers visit the paediatric wards of the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex at Mt. Hope and spend time with the children. They read with them, make up stories, play games, watch movies and sometimes just have conversations. Its sounds simple enough, but for children dealing with illness and confinement, BTSI is a source of emotional support and entertainment.

“For a child, a ward is not exactly a fun place to be,” says Dr Srikanth Rao Venkata, founder and first president of the Art Society of Mt. Hope, the group responsible for BTSI.

Venkata, who graduated in 2013 and is now a house officer at the St. Ann's Psychiatric Hospital, is a remarkably good-natured and easygoing young man, which is impressive when you consider how successful his creations have been. The Art Society, a small group he formed originally to showcase the works of his friends, has erupted in the space of five years to a membership of hundreds, promoting the arts and artists within and external to the campus. They host an annual party as well as an art gala, their signature event. BTSI is their flagship initiative.

“It went from nothing to something really fast,” he says. “It was just me and five of my friends. We intended on showing 20 pieces and it became 135 in the space of a week. It just started to escalate from there”.

The first Art Society gala was held in a small space at the Mt. Hope campus. Subsequent galas were hosted at the much larger Teaching and Learning Centre of the main campus and at Circa, an upscale outdoor nightspot. They hope to host the next art gala at the National Academy for Performing Arts (NAPA). “If we get to NAPA we’ll have done what I set out to do,” Venkata says.

Understand, these are not professional artists hosting what has become a vibrant part of Trinidad’s social calendar. These are medical students investing precious time and effort into the arts while working to complete a five-year, highly rigorous course of study.

“It is pressure,” says Sofiya Barrow, a final year medical student and the current president of the Art Society. “But it’s not impossible. You spend your free time working on art society business. It also helps that we have a great group. We are like family. We handle everything together”.

And, she points out, there are many medical students with both an interest and aptitude in art:
“The Art Society of Mt. Hope encourages people, not just medical students, to do things outside of school work – something colourful, something interesting, something artistic, something creative”.

Friends on the ward

If the Art Society provides a creative outlet, then BTSI provides a charitable one.

“I remember breaking my arm and being on the ward when I was 7 years-old. I was miserable the entire time,” says Aaron Marc Ali, a third year medical student and member of the Art Society. “I just wanted somebody to talk to”.

Aaron guides me through two of the four paediatric wards that BTSI visits. They are like canisters, low roofed with a narrow hallway, rooms to either side. He informs the nurses of who we are (the number one rule of ward etiquette is speak with the nurses first). We pass room after room. Many are empty. There is a group of children in a play room, watching a TV with the volume low. A parent smiles gently at us as she passes, going into a room to sit at the bedside of her child.
Aaron, despite the pressures of school work, is doing what he can to improve the experience of children today. “We try and reach as many as possible in the timeframe,” he says. BTSI makes its rounds on Thursday evenings, meeting first at the campus coffee shop. As many as 25 participants take part on any given week, most from the School of Medicine but also many from the Faculty, the main campus and even external participants.
“I firmly believe that once you have something good, people will support it regardless of whatever walk of life they are from,” says Venkata. “Honestly, helping sick kids is something at a baseline that is fundamentally good”.

And the Society has been taking its mission even further than the ward visits. They purchase books, toys and even medical equipment for the wards. Earlier this year they made a donation to the St. Mary’s Children’s Home and Orphanage. The funds for these charitable acts come from the proceeds of the art gala. On September 16 they held a party at 51 Degrees nightclub called “The Human Art Project,” an event used to help fund the art gala.

The mission is to use the proceeds from next year’s gala to refurbish one of the wards. As Aaron says, “we want to liven it up and make it more colourful for them”.

Sofiya wanted to have this project completed during her term as president but because of delays in getting official approval it will fall under the tenure of her successor, Jonathan Edwards. Nevertheless, she has put things in place for the new president and is confident in his ability to get the job done.

“Being part of the Art Society is so fulfilling because we always succeed,” she says. “We don’t stop until we succeed. And that makes you feel really accomplished”.

Srikanth Venkata is also confident in the capability of the Art Society. Under the leadership of his successors Khavi Singh (the second president) and Sofiya (third) the organisation has grown and prospered. The plan now is to ensure its continued growth, recruiting new members and expanding its charitable works to other medical and childcare facilities.

“Considering the sheer magnitude of what we are trying to achieve we really hope people and organisations can come and help,” he says. “We do need money. We do need hands onboard. If we can do something like put Internet on the wards that will help more than one group of people for a small amount of time. It is going to be there for decades. We want to do something as permanent as we can”.