Bringing the Joy of Origami to Seriously Ill Children Through Breanna’s Gift

by Rochelle Mazze
Edited by Jane Rosemarin
Face painting and an origami crown bring a smile to a visitor at a fundraiser. The author wishes to thank her co-workers Gary Taruscio and Sheryl Stennett for providing photos for this article.

The brightly lit and cheerfully decorated room was divided into sections; half was a play area and the other half had circular tables where we sat with a half-dozen children, happily folding hopping frogs. The children ranged in age from 6 to 9 years old, and all were busy concentrating on completing their frogs with the goal of having them hop into the box we had just completed. Suddenly, the IV of a small child came undone. My immediate impulse was to try to stop the bleeding, but my co-teacher, Carol, loudly announced, “Touch no bodily fluids!” echoing our instructions. She ran to get a nurse who immediately took charge of the situation. “Keep on folding,” the nurse said, as it was a welcome distraction for the little one as she reattached the IV.

This wasn’t a typical experience for us. Ever since I became involved with Breanna’s Gift, teaching origami in hospitals and at Ronald McDonald House, nothing has been typical.

Frogs hop into a box, and owls make good pets.

I have been working with Breanna’s Gift1, and its founder, Marsha Ovitz, in Minneapolis and St. Paul for about ten years. The nonprofit was established in 20082 in memory of Marsha’s granddaughter, Breanna, who at 3 years old, was hospitalized and treated for cancer. One of the activities Breanna loved while in the hospital was to go to the playroom, put on a pair of tap shoes and dance. According to Marsha, “When it was time to leave the playroom, the shoes could not go with her, and that was a time of much sadness and many tears. The idea for Breanna’s Gift came from this experience. We don’t want children to have to leave the shoes behind.”

Marsha began thinking about how experiencing the arts — visual and performing — could benefit seriously ill children being treated in hospitals or at institutions like Ronald McDonald House. Many hospitals do have child-life specialists who help children cope with hospitalization using art and music therapy. But Marsha didn’t want to develop a program as therapy. She wanted experienced visual and performing artists to come into these facilities and just play with the children as though they were children, not patients. After a dance class, she wanted the kids who participated to be given their own tap shoes and costumes to keep and to take with them when they went home. These concepts became the foundation of Breanna’s Gift. Currently, Breanna’s Gift provides classes in drawing, painting, sculpture, weaving, puppetry, theater, dance and origami to Minneapolis-St. Paul area hospitals and Ronald McDonald House.

In the beginning, Marsha hadn’t completely formulated how to do what she wanted to, but as time went by, her ideas blossomed. Everything was a learning experience. Hospital volunteer training and testing on procedures regarding safety, hygiene and patient confidentiality were mandatory for all teachers. Marsha continued teacher instruction by monitoring and mentoring us so our interactions would be as successful as possible. These activities are now streamlined to annual review sessions with questions and answers.

By profession, I am a Suzuki piano teacher, and initially, I thought I could help continue piano lessons for children at Ronald McDonald House. I soon realized that wasn’t realistic and segued into teaching origami and music with my friend Betz Ulrich. We discovered we had skills that complemented each other’s, and together we taught origami and made use of Betz’s treasure trove of portable instruments, guitar, keyboard, percussion and voice. We tried to create origami toys that would lead into associated songs. For example, before we sang “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” we made origami kites. A picture of a kite and diagrams are at the end of the article.

As Betz’s music program strengthened, I considered that origami was a unique art form and I could teach folding without music. Another step on my learning curve. Gradually I discovered that the models I taught needed to be simple, have fewer than ten steps, function as an interactive toy or ornament, not require perfect folds to be successful and have surfaces that could be decorated. Glue, scissors and markers were utilized. Glitter paint, feathers, stickers and jewels were often required.

Fish decorated with markers and googly eyes.

As a teacher, and as a student of origami, my teaching goals had been to create polished pieces and elegant models. This is not possible with children who are sick, undergoing chemotherapy and emotionally or physically challenged. I wish I could say I realized that initially, but over time, my expectations changed and my interactions improved.

I began to develop a cache of models that fit my criteria: frogs, bunnies, owls, ninja stars, kites, flying fish, wind socks, puppets, boats, rockets, flowers, traditional stars, flipping horses, crowns, pirate hats, pirate swords and many, many planes. Anything that flies is a big success. I often arrive prepared with five bags of supplies so I can tailor my models to whatever age or ability I encounter that day. Unexpectedly, praise has come from nurses when we make rockets (powered by straws) or boats (which the child can race across a table by blowing). Apparently blowing is a great way to exercise the lungs.

My hospital teaching also improved when I volunteered with other instructors, especially the flamenco teacher, Kristina de Sacramento. From her I learned that performing “an entertainment” was as much an appreciated diversion as teaching, with the child and their family as audience. I soon developed my own performance origami, with the Captain’s Shirt: the captain, traveling the ocean on his yacht, gets caught in a storm, dives overboard and swims to shore. The poor captain realizes his boat, his hat and all his clothes are gone. But rescuers arrive, and miraculously so does his shirt, which providentially washes up on shore. I accompany the skit with “thunder” from an origami noisemaker.3

Rochelle Mazze with the flamenco dancer Kristina de Sacramento.

Kristina always appears for her shift in full flamenco regalia — long flowing skirt, traditional steel-shanked shoes, hair combs and mantilla. No red volunteer vest — anyone who sees her knows she’s an artist-volunteer. She teaches kids to “dance” in their wheelchairs or beds, employing scarfs, castanets, stuffed animals and fans, with movement coordinated to the music on her CD player. At the end of class, the children receive their own dance shoes.

One of my most moving experiences occurred while working with Kristina. It was the end of our shift. We had completed a class with about a dozen kids, and then went room to room, where she either taught a classical step or performed a dance. Finally, after carefully sanitized our equipment and packing everything up, we were done. We were about to leave, when we were approached by a nurse. Could Kristina perform one more time for a youngster who “was actively engaged in passing.” At first, I didn’t comprehend the euphemism. The teenaged girl had been in Kristina’s class in the past, and she hoped she could come to her room and perform. Of course Kristina said yes,and we unpacked and set up in the darkened room. After the first dance, the child asked for another and Kristina danced again.

Often, when I am on my way home from a shift, I call my family or friends and say, “Do you know how lucky you are?” Disease is arbitrary and makes no class or ethnic distinctions. I know we can appreciate this particularly in the current health crisis.

Right now, the teachers at Breanna’s gift are on hiatus, but Marsha still has a way of providing art with her innovative art-class-in-a-box supplies. Each Art Takeout Box, put together and packed by volunteers, contains everything needed to create a puppet, mosaic, watercolor, pendant or coloring project.4 We give these to kids unable to participate when we have out shift, and Marsha is also making them available to hospitals in California, Virginia, Texas, Florida and Wisconsin.5

With a lot of unexpected time recently, I have been thinking about more projects, particularly those that can be folded and decorated with a large group of different-aged children. Any ideas are appreciated! For more information about Breanna’s Gift, please check the website, https://breannasgift.org.

The Lebanese Kite taught at Breanna’s Gift. Folded by the author. See PDF diagrams.

1. https://breannasgift.org.
2. Marsha began Breanna’s Gift in 2007 at Ronald McDonald House in Minneapolis. In 2008, Breanna’s Gift obtained 501(c)3 status.
3. The original Captain’s Shirt has the captain drowning, with the shirt all that’s left of him. I changed the ending,
4. The Art Takeout Box contains instructions and all the materials necessary to complete a project. Projects are designed so that they can be fun with or without a helper. Current projects include Make a Sock Puppet, Make a Drawing, Make a Sculpture, Make a Mini Puppet, Make a Watercolor, Make a Mosaic, Make a Pendant, and a coloring project for mom and dad called Inside the Lines. See here.
5. Breanna’s Gift also sends Art Takeout projects to the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University, the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles; the Mayo Eugenio Litta Children’s Hospital in Rochester, Minn., The Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, The Medical City Children’s Hospital in Dallas, and American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison Wis.