Refugees in France and patients at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH) benefitted from the Marina Keegan Fellowship this summer when Sophie Smyke and Julie Peng (both ’17) used art and grant money to improve their circumstances.
The Keegan fellowship was established in 2013 in honor of Marina Keegan ’08, who died in a car crash days after graduating from Yale. The annual fellowship grants two Upper School (US) students up to $2,500 each to pursue summer projects that involve two of Marina’s passions: art and activism.
Sophie used an $1800 grant to travel over 3,000 miles to Calais, France, as a volunteer with Care 4 Calais, a nonprofit organization that provides an ever-growing 7,000 refugees with shelter, food, clothing, and social interaction before they journey to more permanent homes throughout Europe.
For 10 days, Sophie, her mother—former substitute Ceramics Teacher Angela DeVecchi ’81—and around 50 more volunteers spent their mornings organizing and distributing donations of toothbrushes, underwear, sleeping bags, blankets, and other necessities.
Sophie said one of the harder parts of the trip was delivering what she called “somewhat meager” donations to the long line of refugees. Although some refugees were put together and clean and seemed excited to receive their package, she reported, others were injured and in rags, avoiding eye contact and appearing to have “shut down.”
“You want to do everything that you can to help the refugees, but you realize that these people have been so completely changed by the last couple of years of their lives in a very dangerous, awful way,” Sophie said, “and there is only so much you can do.”
Nevertheless, in the afternoons, Sophie and her mother offered refugees English and painting classes, which they advertised by posting signs around the camp. Most of the refugees were bored, under 30, tired, hungry, and sometimes involved in trouble, Ms. DeVecchi said, adding that they were also mostly male, as women and girls tended to avoid campsites due to safety concerns.
“The lessons allowed for a distraction,” Ms. DeVecchi said. “These boys and men spend most of their lives obsessing over the future because they don’t know if they will be safe from all of the dangers they previously experienced.”
Neither Sophie nor her mom knew what to expect entering the camp, Sophie said, but they soon realized how welcoming the refugee community was. On Sophie’s last day, she said, two 18-year-old Afghan boys invited Sophie into their tent to talk about their journey from Kabul in search of safer lives and better jobs.
“It was amazing to sit in their tent and talk with them for a couple of hours while they served me the little food that they had,” she said. “I was so excited to have had this very human, normal interaction with people from such different backgrounds. It made me realize that the refugees were just like us.”
Sophie had originally planned to photograph the refugees to humanize and make them “less invisible,” but due to potential legal issues, she instead collected artwork they made and stories they wrote during their time with her. The 20 pieces of work she brought home with her tell of their background, self-image, and journeys.
One drawing by 18-year-old Safi, whose girlfriend died halfway through their journey from Afghanistan to Care 4 Calais, depicts the couple’s initials surrounding a broken heart that drips blood into a jar—a representation of all of the memories and love Safi said he saves for his girlfriend.
Although Care 4 Calais helps people who have fled their home country to escape war or persecution, the French government claims the refugees only want French jobs and does not provide the organization with any funding, forcing the camp to rely solely on private donations, Sophie said. She added that Care 4 Calais will soon have to stop distributing donations based on what the refugees need and instead offer simply what the camp has, since private donation numbers are decreasing and the number of refugees entering the camp is increasing.
Sophie and her mom agreed their volunteer work put their lives into perspective.
“There are many people living in horrible conditions who are still happy and hopeful even though they have no idea what the next plan is,” Sophie said. “The idea of complaining about my own life seems ridiculous—especially as I now apply for colleges and realize how fortunate I am.”
Travelling 22 miles with a $550 grant, Julie also used art to bring relief and excitement into people’s lives at the Hale Center for Families at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH). She designed a series of five arts nights targeted, but not limited to, terminally ill patients awaiting doctors’ diagnoses—a process that Julie said puts the rest of their lives on hold.
To advertise the week’s events and rally participants, Julie hung posters around the hospital. The first two nights centered on visual art, with the June 26 event featuring two students from Julie’s Sudbury-based visual art class who spent three hours teaching patients how to draw and paint. On a wall inside the center, the 20-person group together created a mural containing dolphins, dogs, and the BCH building.
“The kids were so funny and excited to do each activity,” Julie said. “When you’re older, you sometimes lose the excitement and passion for the little things that young kids have, but these kids’ excitement was contagious.”
A week later, Julie hosted sculpture night with the help of ceramic students Bayard Eton ’17 and Jeremy Tang ’18. A group of around 13 patients played with clay for an hour, including a boy who usually came to the same room to play computer games and was “so excited” to have something different to do, Julie said.
“The kids loved both of the [visual art] activities,” she added. “After enjoying themselves so much at drawing and painting, lots of them continued to come to the rest of the nights afterwards. They always looked forward to the next activity.”
The final three events Julie designed for August 8, 18, and 22 focused on the performing arts: Amy Gu ’16 gave a live violin performance the first night; Sarah Nissenbaum ’16, Rose Meier, and Sofia Sulikowski (both ’17) sang a capella on the second night; and on the third, Angela Liu ’18 and Samiha Datta ’19 performed traditional Asian dances.
Amy’s 45-minute recital of “Butterfly Lovers Concerto,” “Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), Op. 20,” a Mendelssohn concerto, and Vivaldi’s “Spring” was filmed in the BCH recording studio and broadcast live on televisions around the hospital, giving some of the terminally ill patients a chance to listen.
Both the a capella and dance nights lasted 40 minutes and drew a crowd of 17 patients. Angela performed Mongolian-styled “Galloping on the Prairie,” and Samiha performed Indian-styled “Saraswati Vandana,” a traditional Hindu mantra invoked for higher knowledge and wisdom. Four days later, the singers sang 11 tunes, including “Hey Soul Sister,” “Run to You,” and “Colors of the Wind.” The trio took audience requests, including “Happy Birthday” in honor of a patient.
Julie said she knew the patients were enjoying the performance when a little girl whose mom was trying to take her to the bathroom begged to stay so that she wouldn’t miss the show.
Sarah Sullivan, certified child life specialist at BCH and Julie’s main BCH contact, described Julie’s initiative as a needed addition to the programming offered at the center.
“Providing a means for self-expression through art, learning a new creative skill or engaging with music will greatly enhance a potentially dismal hospital experience,” she said. “This program not o
nly gives frequent patients something to look forward to, but potentially helps them build a coping tool or creative outlet for future hospitalizations.”
Julie said that the hardest part of her fellowship was coordinating with such a large group—the performers, visual artists, and the BCH staff—and that the experience taught her to be a more efficient communicator.
“It was worth it to see my ideas come to life and benefit both us and the patients,” Julie added. “You make their day, and they make yours.”
Like Sophie, Julie stressed that the Keegan fellowship gave her perspective: “Hanging out with these kids who are so enthusiastic to just draw or watch a performance, despite having limited access to the resources that we have, makes you reconsider your priorities.”