Katie Stoudemire '03 says it's a good day if she comes home with cornstarch all over her shirt-the residue of a day's work teaching science classes to young patients at Duke Children's Hospital and UNC Children's Hospital. On any given day she might build a rocket, help a child construct a botanically correct flower, or create "leaf-critters" that tell stories.
Stoudemire is founder and director of Wonder Connection, a program of the N.C. Botanical Garden that grew from her work as a camp counselor at the Green River Preserve and as an environmental outreach educator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. Part of her job with the museum involved creating kits for children who could not physically visit the museum.
She wanted to expand the program to focus on hospitalized children, but the museum didn't have funding for her to pursue that dream. Undeterred, Stoudemire left the museum and resolved to keep trying. She made a sign on her bulletin board that said "don't give up," and looked at it every day. She sought funding for two years, until in 2006 she received enough donations and grants to fund the project now called Wonder Connection. Since then, she has been working full-time at the two children's hospitals.
Stoudemire has learned there is no such thing as a typical day of work in a hospital. "You can't set a schedule because it will inevitably get interrupted or pushed back."
Instead of arriving at the beginning of the day with a clear plan, she visits rooms and asks the children if they would like to do something with her. She spends anywhere from 20 minutes to a couple of hours with individuals or small groups-the work is entirely child-directed.
Stoudemire also gives children the option to say no to her. "That's our gift to them," she said. "They don't get to say no to anyone else in the hospital." She believes providing choices to children in a place where decisions are mostly made for them is powerful therapy.
For the most part, the children love working with the program and Stoudemire loves working with them. "I especially love the series of moments when you watch a kid's face change from boredom, or sadness, or pain, to joy. It's incredibly rewarding. Different people need different things to feel validated in their work and in their life, and that's all I need."
It appears that Stoudemire's funding will soon run out and she is looking for a more permanent revenue source to ensure the program continues. Despite the difficulties, she remains hopeful and draws inspiration still from the "don't give up" sign on her bulletin board. Eventually, she would like to see programs like Wonder Connection in every children's hospital.
"That is the big dream," she said. "When it comes down to it...if I was (a kid) in the hospital, this is what I would want." She continued, "Ever since I was a little kid people said ‘You can do whatever you want to do,' and I took that seriously," she said. "I said this is what I want to do."
She credits her experience at Davidson for helping her understand the importance of learning for learning's sake, something she includes in her program. "Davidson nurtured my enthusiasm for learning. The main goal is not to have kids learn science facts, but to nurture their wonder and curiosity about the world."