The Rapidian

Teacher, education liaison keeps children reading, learning at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital

Sarah Smith works with young patients and their families to keep children on track with school.
Teacher and Education Liaison Sarah Smith in her classroom at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital

Teacher and Education Liaison Sarah Smith in her classroom at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital /Kristin Brace

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“One of the best things we can do is to help people be literate.” --Sarah Smith

The kid-friendly classroom fosters learning and creativity

The kid-friendly classroom fosters learning and creativity /Kristin Brace

When you're a kid, it's hard enough to miss a day of school when you're home sick with the flu or a bad cold. For children spending anywhere from a few days to a few weeks in the hospital with serious illnesses or injuries, the thought of catching up at school can seem like an insurmountable challenge.

Enter Sarah Smith, Teacher and Education Liaison at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital. Her role is to come alongside patients who are missing school and to help them with their homework so they will be caught up when they return to class. Long-term patients typically have a set schedule. If possible, children meet with Smith in the classroom, a cheerful space stocked with books and computers and comfortable places to work. When a patient doesn't have homework, Smith devises projects for them. Recent activities include a science lab and story writing.

“I do the best I can to normalize the experience.”

The other half of Smith's job is to serve as a go-between for patients and their schools. She says that it's a great feeling “knowing you can take something off the family's plate while they focus on medical needs.”

If a child is only in the hospital for one or two days but will be out of school for much longer, Smith discusses home-bound options with the family, informing them of state laws and services that are available.

On any given day Smith could interact with patients aged 5 to 18. Lessons might range from phonics to pre-calculus. In addition, each child's school likely has a different set of policies for making up work and communicating with families.

“The challenges are the fun part,” she says.

As she works with a broad range of students, Smith draws on her 14 years of teaching high school. As an English teacher, she saw firsthand the importance of teaching reading and writing as a means of bettering each student and society at large. For this reason, she loves the idea of the many people and organizations coming together as the Community Literacy Initiative.  

“One of the best things we can do,” she says, “is to help people be literate.”

Smith is currently working toward developing a program that promotes reading.

The dual nature of Smith's role suits her well. In college, she had a double major in English and Psychology and did an internship in Child Life.

Of her experience with Child Life she says, “Once you see it, it doesn't leave you.”

Smith loved teaching but had always hoped to blend it with something like Child Life. When Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital opened, she inquired about whether or not they had a teacher on staff. They did, but she was moving to China. Smith applied for the position, and the rest is history.

For Smith, it's exciting to be able to build into the kids she works with and to be a part of the greater work of the community toward giving our children a brighter future.

“It's hard to work here and not have hope," says Smith. "I'm surrounded by incredible people and stories every day.”

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