Executive Director, Art With a Heart in Healthcare
Conversation with and photograph by Tiffany Manning
Christy Ponder leads a team of artists-in-residence, community volunteers, and University of North Florida student interns who visit patients at Wolfson Children’s Hospital and Nemours Children’s Specialty Care every day of the week, bringing art materials, encouragement, and time away from medical issues. Art with a Heart in Healthcare (AWAHIH), a special, local non-profit organization, has brought individualized art sessions, bedside and in groups, to thousands of patients and their families since 2001, seeking to empower patients while they are faced with a seemingly powerless situation. The organization has seen continued growth and support from local businesses under Ponder’s leadership. Their programming has expanded within its current settings, with additions like Art Across the Airwaves at Wolfson that makes available recorded art programs by AWAHIH artists for kids to tune in to at their leisure from their rooms. They’ve also added new locations, now serving patients of all ages and their families at St. Vincent’s Medical Center Riverside and at the Mayo Clinic.
How long have you been working with AWAHIH and how did you get involved?
I started volunteering with AWAHIH when our family moved to Jacksonville in 2011. I was familiar with the work they did and when I met the amazing Lori Guadagno, one of the founders of AWAHIH, I knew I wanted to be a part of this special mission. As I met people around town, I realized that not many knew about the wonderful work we were doing. When the board chair asked me to step into the executive director role, I was excited to have this opportunity to tell our story to a broader audience and expand our service footprint beyond Wolfson and Nemours to St. Vincent’s and the Mayo Clinic.
Do you find connections between your background and the work you do at AWAHIH?
Yes. While I’m not a trained artist like everyone else on our team, I do have a lot of experience in managing people and fundraising for non-profits. I view a key part of my role at AWAHIH as a creative process of supporting our artists, making sure they have the resources they need to conduct successful art sessions with patients.
How would you summarize the impact of art, both the creation of it and the exhibition of it, in a medical setting?
I see the impact that art has on the hospital floor on a daily basis. We are the one thing that kids get to choose while in a hospital setting. They can choose to paint, or to draw, or to make jewelry or origami, among many options. They can even choose just to have an artist sit with them and paint a piece for them. Our service provides empowerment in a frequently powerless situation.
Can you recall an especially memorable interaction with a patient?
So many they are hard to count! A particular one that sticks in my mind was with a preteen boy who had been on continuous pain medication as part of his treatment. He made the choice to join us for a group session, and he ended up staying for five hours with us. The most amazing thing was that he did not request any pain medications during the time he was creating art with us. That really brought it home for me … how art can play a role in healing.
Throwing this year’s AWAHIH patient exhibition question back to you, “If you could create your own world … what would it look like?” (Read more about this in “A World of Their Own”)
A world with happy and healthy children. Lots of travel to places with great restaurants and art museums, and more beach time. And more time with great books.
What do you love about Jacksonville?
I love our city’s can-do spirit and sense of optimism. It is exciting to be a member of our healthcare community, as Jacksonville is becoming a major hub with the growth at so many of our existing hospitals and with MD Anderson coming to town. Plus, our lovely aquatic landscape provides so much inspiration for the artists in our community as there is water everywhere you turn!