The power of pretend: Chelsea’s Closet brings dress-up and play to hospitalized children

For a hospitalized child, a chance to play, imagine and socialize is powerful medicine. Jason and Alison Hicks experienced this firsthand with their daughter, Chelsea, during her cancer treatments at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. Below, Alison shares her daughter’s story and explains how the Chelsea Hicks Foundation is bringing joy to patients like Chelsea, one costume at a time.

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When our two older daughters and Chelsea’s cousins visited her at Doernbecher, they brought dress-up clothes and tea party supplies. She transformed from a patient into a princess, a superhero or a monkey, and she was often spotted dancing in the hallways with a boa and tutu, trying to get other children or staff to play with her.

Dressing up changed Chelsea’s demeanor – she’d go from bored and isolated in her room to a state of pure joy when she dressed up. It didn’t take long before her dress-up and tea parties reached staff and other patients – children’s laughter is, after all, contagious! These moments provided respite from hospital rooms and worries about which treatment is coming next. Chelsea was known to show up for her clinic appointments dressed as something silly and spectacular to help her battle the “cancer bugs.”

Our daughter courageously fought Wilms’ tumor cancer for two years before losing her battle at the age of 5. We were heartbroken but inspired by her journey, so we started the not-for-profit organization, the Chelsea Hicks Foundation, and its dress-up and play program, “Chelsea’s Closet,” in 2009. We saw the power of emotional healing that went along with dress-up and play – this is what helped Chelsea during her treatments. We wanted to give those types of memories to other families going though extended hospital stays.

A rolling armoire stuffed with brand new costumes, accessories, shoes and wigs, Chelsea’s Closet visits Doernbecher Children’s Hospital every month, led by a team of lively volunteers.

During a Chelsea’s Closet visit, hospitalized children and their siblings, friends or family are able to leave their rooms and select a new costume and accessory to wear and keep. Volunteers lead the children in a musical hallway parade, and wrap up the visit with an imaginative craft and special snack. For older children and those confined to their rooms, volunteers always have special goody bags on hand, filled with nail polish, art supplies, stuffed animals and other treats. When they can, parents will often try to coordinate their child’s treatments around Chelsea’s Closet visits.8x10_1570 copy

In the six years since its inception, the Chelsea Hicks Foundation has been met with so much positive feedback from patients, their families and hospital staff that the frequency of visits has increased, allowing them to serve even more seriously ill children. CHF is committed to bringing the healing power of dress-up and play to even more children, through the help of volunteers and donor support. For more information on how you can help grow the Chelsea Hicks Foundation, please visit our website!

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About the Author

Lisa McMahan is a social media coordinator working to discover and share stories at OHSU. Got a story idea? Connect with the team: socialmedia@ohsu.edu.
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