Art has long been used as a form of healing the mind, body and soul. For some Metro children, creativity and restorative care come by way of an art center on wheels.
Six-year-old Tobias Walsh of Hugo was born with monosomy-6 trisomy-18, a rare genetic disorder that also impacted his brother, Landon, who passed away in 2013. Parents Shannon and Jon Walsh share that they are grateful for every day they have with Tobias. “He just has the best attitude. He wakes up with a smile every day,” Shannon says.
It’s the same smile that lights up his face when crafting with Ziggy’s Art Bus, a program that serves children with life-limiting illnesses by indulging their creative minds.
Ziggy’s Art Bus founder Gina Zaffarano knew this artful idea had to come to fruition when she was introduced to Crescent Cove, a respite home and care facility for children in Brooklyn Center. “I realized when working at Crescent Cove that there was not a lot of space for creative endeavors for these children,” she says. “… Art is such an equalizing experience for everyone… and it is something that takes people out of their heads and into their hearts.” In 2019, the art bus became a reality, making artistic expression as accessible as possible for these children.
The art bus travels year-round to three health centers, including Fairview Children’s Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House and Crescent Cove. The projects provided by Ziggy’s Art Bus are created and developed by an artist on the Ziggy’s Art Bus team, Richfield’s Vicki Craig, who has made, curated and manufactured around 80 projects for the bus throughout the years. Some projects that kids have enjoyed have been butterfly, caterpillar and cloud making. “We want to bring joy to children with life-limiting illnesses. That is our sole foundation for Ziggy’s Art Bus,” says Zaffarano.
The Walsh family first came across Ziggy’s Art Bus at a back-to-school event at Crescent Cove. Shannon says she looks forward to the surprise of seeing what Tobias creates with Ziggy’s Art Bus each time he stays at Crescent Cove. “It’s sweet we never know what he’s going to come home with,” Shannon says.
When the bus arrives on location, volunteers are there to help facilitate the art-making process for the children. Sometimes it is very hands-on for volunteers, and sometimes the kids take over the projects themselves. “We generally curate these art projects based around the demographic of kids we are seeing that week,” Zaffarano says. “For example, with [the Ronald McDonald House], we have pre-planned art projects we bring that week. Crescent Cove is very different though. Many kids we serve there aren’t able-bodied … In that case, it is very volunteer dependent, and we look to them to create a beautiful experience for the child.”
Although the crafts are pre-planned at the Ronald McDonald House, the volunteers often adapt the experience to fit the needs of each child participating. Sometimes this goes beyond the art project. Part-time Mahtomedi resident Pat Whelpley has been a volunteer with Ziggy’s Art Bus since its inception in 2019 and is well acquainted with the positive impact Ziggy’s has on the children and their families.
Mahtomedi resident Pat Whelpley volunteers weekly with Ziggy's Art Bus
Each Monday, Whelpley volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House, located on the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities campus. “We sometimes just turn on music and dance with the wheelchairs. We just do what the kids like to do,” she says.
Whelpley describes the bus as a “place of refuge” for the families staying at Ronald McDonald House, who come from all over the world for care. Many of the children Whelpley works with are siblings of children with life-threatening illnesses. “When you have a handicapped child, they get more attention because they need it,” Whelpley says. At Ziggy’s Art Bus, the siblings are also able to participate and experience individualized support.
The Walsh family cherishes that Ziggy’s Art Bus includes each of their children in the process of creating. Tobias’ sister Bella, 11, also loves crafting. The family looks forward to events at Crescent Cove for the opportunity they offer for the siblings to create memories in a safe and inclusive environment.
“One of the things that I love about Ziggy’s Art Bus is that everyone has a chance to create something,” Shannon says. “Young or old, disability or not, there are no limitations to make something beautiful.”
This adaptability is what makes Ziggy’s Art Bus so enjoyable for children in all situations, from children with extremely limited communication and mobility, to the siblings of children with life-threatening illnesses. Tamara Cairns, Ziggy’s Art Bus managing director, explains that this flexibility is fueled by the program’s mission of “focusing on the joy.” No matter what a child is experiencing, the ultimate goal is a joyful experience, “involving a child in any way they can be involved,” Cairns says.
As inclusive and inviting as the staff are, the atmosphere of the bus itself evokes a feeling of security and wonder. Inside the bus is a “magical place where children can really escape” Cairns says. The colorful setting is visually appealing to children of all ages and is a place where children can feel safe to process and heal. “When these kids get together, they open up to us and talk about things they are going through,” Whelpley says.
Ziggy’s Art Bus team hopes that every piece of art made by the children will become a legacy project that they can look back on, knowing that they created a little piece of sunshine—for everyone.