Find Your Passion: In Helping Children Cope, Student Finds Herself

By Kim Eaton
April 29, 2013

Sara Howard5-year-old Alyvia Beninghaus joins Howard while showing off her painting (Courtesy of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center).

Sara Howard was lost.

She was going through the motions of life, but there was no joy. Her dreams no longer mattered after her father died her senior year in high school. Two years into college, Howard was still struggling to just make it through the day.

Then, she met a young boy with cancer and realized that she could be doing more with her life. She began volunteering at Children's of Alabama in Birmingham and experienced firsthand the work of a child life specialist.

"Children all over the country have their childhood stripped from them because of health issues they're facing," said the 22-year-old University of Alabama senior. "When a child is brought into a hospital, they are being taken away from their home, family, school, friends and activities. They lose their normalcy."

Child life specialists understand the importance of children maintaining as much normalcy as possible when health issues make daily doctor visits, monthly check-ins or weekly hospital stays a part of the child's life. Their job is to help children cope with the new environment by equipping them and their families with information and emotional support. They do this through play, preparation, education and self-expressive activities.

Sara HowardHoward is interning this semester at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, home to one of the nation’s largest Child Life programs (Courtesy of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center).

"We stress the importance of play, and we value it," Howard said. "We use play for everything, and we learn a lot about a child that way. Play benefits the cognitive, language, social, emotional and physical domains of a child's development. It's how a child learns and understands things. It's their ability to process information."

While Howard stumbled into the field by chance, she has spent the past couple of years increasing her knowledge and honing her skills as an undergraduate in UA's child life program, offered through the College of Human Environmental Sciences' human development and family studies department. UA is one of only two schools in the state offering such a program, and Howard said UA's program is unique in that it partners with a medical facility – DCH Regional Medical Center – that is located next to campus. That affiliation is crucial for students earning practicum hours.

"Sara is a hard working student who is passionate about the field of child life," said Dr. Sherwood Burns-Nader, a certified child life specialist and assistant professor in UA's College of Human Environmental Sciences' department of human development and family studies. "She enjoys life and shares her joy of life through her smile and interactions with others. Her commitment, passion and personality make her a great fit for the field of child life, and I am confident that she will impact the field in many ways in the years to come."

Howard's journey has not been an easy one. Becoming a child life specialist requires work, dedication, determination, patience and time, Howard said.

"You have to be willing to give a lot in order to receive a little," she added.

From going to class and studying to volunteering, her life has revolved around school and work. But she does not regret it in the least.

Sara HowardHoward and 4-year-old Wyatt Kaake have a talk (Courtesy of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center).

"I have experiences that I will never forget," Howard said. "And I know that all of the time and hard work that I have put into this field will truly pay off."

Howard has already reaped one of those rewards – the opportunity to intern at one of the largest Child Life programs in the nation. She has spent her final semester transitioning from student to professional while working at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Howard has worked with inpatient, outpatient and a critical care unit in neurology, the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit. From facilitating medical play sessions -- to help the child become more familiar with his environment -- to preparing patients for procedures, she has gotten a firsthand look at what her life will be like after graduation.

"Everything I learned in school has prepared me for this role as an intern," Howard said. "But now, it's not learning about other people's interactions; it's having my own. It's creating my own style and work. Being an intern is unlike anything. You are working hands-on with the children and that is something that no amount of studying can prepare you for because every child is different and every single interaction is not the same."

Sara HowardA 3D hand mold that Howard created for a family who had lost their child (Courtesy of Sara Howard).

Her days are not always joyous ones. Not only is she there to hold a child's hand when he is hurting or share the moment when a child conquers his fears, she is also there to help families when they lose a child. She has had the honor of taking part in memory-making moments, such as making a 3D mold of a child's hand.

"People wonder how I could revolve my life around this type of work and still live a 'normal' life," she said. "When you know you can do the type of work I do, you don't ignore it. When I am supporting a family during the death of their child, I am experiencing that with them. … But what I may feel in the moment of that child's death is not at all what that family is feeling and because of my compassion and empathy for others, I am able to be there for them and help them through it.

"It's a crazy job, but I love every minute of it. I love the fact that I will never know it all. I will constantly be challenged, constantly adapting my skills, and I will always have room to improve and things to learn."

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This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.