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Area Artist Paints Custom Murals For Kids With Long Stays At KY Children's Hospital

Cheri Lawson

An extended stay in the hospital is not fun for anyone.  But one woman has found a way to brighten the stay for some kids at Kentucky Children’s Hospital.   

Debbie Van Leeuwen has been making a difference at Kentucky Children’s Hospital for the last seven years with the project she named “Operation Feel Better.”  

“I actually paint murals for long-term patients in the Kentucky Children’s Hospital. I paint whatever their favorite things are. For example, they may say, their favorite color, their favorite sports team, their favorite Disney princess,” said Van Leeuwen. 

The muralist spends a lot of time in her art studio at her Lexington home. The studio walls are lined with murals filled with characters like Minnie and Mickey Mouse, SpongeBob, and Harry Potter.  This is where Van Leeuwen creates personalized murals for kids who need to be in the hospital for an extended stay. The art which is about 3 by 5 is hung in the child’s hospital room.  Van Leeuwen said she wanted to create art that would become a conversation starter for people who work in the hospital when they enter the child’s room.  

Credit Courtesy Debbie VanLeeuwen
This mural with a zebra was painted for a child in the hospital after Debbie Van Leeuwen was given her first name and a list of her favorite things.

Van Leeuwen said, “When the nurse walks in the room she could say, ‘Oh, hey, Justin, I didn’t know you were into Sponge Bob ‘or ‘Cammy, I didn’t know you loved butterflies, or I didn’t know you had a pet dog or is your favorite color red?’”   

The artist donates her time and the supplies for the artwork.  She pays for the art supplies by selling hand-painted tiles and ornaments through Kid Critters. It’s a business she created where all of the proceeds go toward purchasing materials for the hospital murals. She’s painted murals for dozens of patients but due to HIPPA she doesn’t meet them or know their last names.    

“I don’t know why they’re there. I don’t know their families or where they’re from. But I’ll tell you what, I know that Joanna loves zebras, and that she wants to go to Paris, and that she plays soccer, and their favorite color is yellow. So, I may not know a lot about them but I know a lot about them,” said Van Leeuwen. 

Each mural tells a story about the child using their name, favorite color and favorite things. She recalls one patient who loved board games, especially monopoly.

“I painted him a whole stack of his favorite games. And I put a silhouette of him playing, what I assumed he’d be looking like, playing the games and being excited and I had the Monopoly man there spreading his arms, like a positive message. I put the Scrabble around the outside of his banner that had hidden words so he could kind of look. Then I put all of this Monopoly money, I glued on the outside of it. It was just flowing over the banner,” reported Van Leeuwen. 

Since Van Leeuwen doesn’t meet the children, her contact with the hospital is Ashley Rapske, a certified child life specialist with Kentucky Children’s Hospital's Child Life Program. Rapske said her job is to help kids and families cope with being in the hospital. The child life specialist says having a personalized mural hanging on a child’s hospital wall is a great way to build rapport.   

“So using their name, which is in their mural and then commenting on something that’s in the mural of what they like. ‘Oh, Sponge Bob is in there’ or ‘I see Paw Patrol or oh, Harry Potter’. Whatever that may be in that mural is something they can connect with the child on their level. So, then it’s not just coming in, taking their vitals, and leaving. You’re engaging the child. It adds that personal connection. It helps connect the kid and the family with the medical team,” said Rapske.

Credit Courtesy Debbie VanLeeuwen
This mural of superheroes painted by Van Leeuwen hangs in Kentucky Children's Hospital.

Rapske said Van Leeuwen also creates much larger murals that are displayed along the walls in the hallways of the children’s hospital. She said one of the favorites has a superhero theme with characters. Van Leeuwen included people who work in the hospital as superheroes like the dietician and the respiratory therapist. Rapske said some of the hallway murals include an ‘I Spy’ component where people need to find hidden items like a party hat or a star in the mural   

“Even adults need to play, just taking a moment, focusing on something and playing “I Spy”. It really just kind of brings people together and it’s something fun in the hallway. And it’s also a great way for the kid and the nurse or the kid and physical therapy to just connect in the hallway like, ’hey let’s go for a walk’ and together they’re doing the “I Spy,” said Rapske.  

The patients and families are overjoyed when they see their custom-made murals said Rapske. Debbie Van Leeuwen said, she’s grateful if for even one minute the art helps a child think about things that make them happy.  

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