September: Hearts and Hands

 

In what will come as a shock to almost no one, I adore back-to- school time. I love the fall, the pencils, the fresh notebooks, crayola watercolor paint sets… heck, I was in Home Depot last week and started waxing nostalgic in the padlock section. (Focus, Marissa.) All this to say, when choosing life-long friends who feel more like sisters, choose one that will nerd out on life right along with you. That’s what I did. 

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Speaking of first days, Amanda and I met on our very first day of graduate school many moons ago. I’m fairly certain she was wearing a sweater with a Toronto Maple Leaf on it, which is not something you see every day on the USC campus. Her love of school surpassed even mine and she went on to earn a Doctor of Education and become a professor and purveyor of online education for communication professionals. (She’s fancy and her knowledge is definitely something I’m going to exploit shamelessly in a coming post.) This blog post, however, is about Amanda’s eldest daughter Avery and the remarkable power of making things.

Because, you see, not only are we nerds, we are crafters. So much so that Amanda once accidentally removed part of her fingerprint by over-using a glue gun which consequently caused the Canadian gal a few issues at the immigration office. Her fingers are fine, and she’s now a dual-citizen, but that is dedication, people. Again, I’m meandering, I know. So all of this to say… when thinking on what I want to write about and topics to explore in this space, a theme that keeps popping up is creativity as a healing practice. This has certainly been the case in my life and for so many friends. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a necessarily “creative” person, turning on the part of the brain that is making (a bench, a sandwich, a piece of art) instead of analyzing can prove extremely beneficial. 

Avery turns eight years old at the end of this month. She is precious and perfect and smarter than me. She wants to be an entrepreneur and a scientist and she writes songs on her ukulele and asks that they be recorded and sent to Auntie Marissa in California. Her little sister Shelby is my Goddaughter. Perhaps her wise, intuitive, old-soul nature hints at all she has been through, but otherwise you’d never know that when Avery was 18 months old she was diagnosed with Atrial Septal Defect, a condition that required open heart surgery to repair the holes in her tiny heart. 

“Possessing a creative mind is like having a border collie for a pet. If you don’t give it a job to do, it will find a job to do, and you might not like the job it invents.” - Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

One of my favorite quotes from a favorite book…now compound that mind with facing a very scary unknown, like a sick child or parent or anyone, really; I know my mind can wander with a capital W, and it won’t always go to good places. I’ve found that using the hands, connecting with the heart, to make something, anything, can be a potent salve in stressful times. Perhaps this sounds overly simplistic, but for someone like me, who tends to overcomplicate, sometimes simple is essential. 

And, fortunately, Avery’s mom is a doer with a capital D. But what can you do -  what can anyone do - when faced with something so difficult and so totally out of one’s control? Well, in Amanda’s case, she turned this incredibly trying time into an opportunity to help - her daughter, and, it turns out, other kids too, beginning with what she could control.

“I get cold so easily,” says Amanda. “So looking at my girl in that hospital gown, knowing that several times a day and night doctors had to expose her back to be able to attend to her chest, I just couldn’t take knowing how cold and uncomfortable she would be.” 

Furthermore, she wanted her daughter to be laying on something soft, not itchy. So Amanda, who inherited her mom's sewing prowess, pieced together an outfit of cozy fabric for Avery that she could wear in the hospital that snapped in the front, thus allowing nurses and doctors to check her out with ease. 

And then she made another one. 

And then she added matching leg warmers, decorative snaps and coordinating hair bows. Making the shirts was not just a creative outlet, it was healing. It was her de-stressor, a balm. 

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“Seeing Avery in ‘regular’ clothes, even in a hospital bed, made me stop thinking - even just for a little while- about our girl being sick,” Amanda remembers. “I would look at her and not just see tubes, but the frilly, matching outfits I was usually putting her in, and I would think ‘she’s going to be OK.’”

Other families began to notice. Soon, parents of children also in the hospital were asking if they could buy these outfits for their little ones, and The Heal-A-Boo-Boo Project was born. 

Amanda never considered taking money from other parents and quickly realized this accidental venture as a way to help those whose pain she was all too familiar with. 

“We were so lucky.” Amanda says. “We had wonderful health insurance and we happened to live twenty minutes from one of the best children’s hospitals in the country. Heal-A-Boo-Boo was my way of paying it forward.” 

For months after Avery was released from the hospital Amanda continued to make the shirts and donate them, buying supplies with her own money and supplementing with small grants and private donations. What started as a way to channel her energy and assuage her worry while Avery was sick eventually led to over 400 shirts being donated around the world to hospitals that would allow alternative clothing for pediatric patients. 

Now a mom of two with her own company, Amanda no longer has time to make the shirts, but - ever the clever gal - has found a way to marry her work life and desire to give back.

This holiday season Amanda is launching Crafting for a Cause (www.coursesforcommunicators.com/craftingforacausecourse), an online course that teaches individuals how to use their creative time and resources to help others. The course combines her love of creating and philanthropy and proceeds will go towards creating an endowed fund in her daughter’s name at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, where Avery was a patient, and to the Ronald McDonald House, which Amanda says was a “much-needed refuge” for their family.

I vividly remember waiting for the phone call that Avery was out of surgery that day in 2013. She woke up asking for ice cream and doctors said she was one of the strongest little fighters they’d ever seen. That day seems far away now, but the lessons resonate, and I will be highlighting more stories like this one in future posts. Stay tuned and, now, go make something! Even better, in the spirit of Avery and her little warrior heart… go make something with all of the love in your warrior heart and give it to someone else…for this is a most potent medicine.

By Marissa DiMaggio

 

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