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Celebrating Child Life in Kenya

Morgan Livingstone, a certified child life specialist in private practice in Toronto, Canada, is a steadfast champion for global child life programs. She dreams big, really big, and works tirelessly to nurture child life in Kenya. As Child Life Officer for World Eye Cancer Hope, she partnered with Sarah Ellen Mamlin, director and chief child advocate at Sally Test Pediatric Centre, to grow a thriving, locally staffed, locally sustainable child life program. WE C Hope Brings Child Life to Kenya gives us a chance to tour the hospital and hear staff members share their perspectives on the benefits of child life to the children in Kenya.

*last day in Eldoret 2014

Morgan shares her story

 My journey growing a locally sustainable child life program in Kenya started with my work at World Eye Cancer Hope, formerly The Daisy Fund – a UK/Canada/USA charity and Kenyan NGO focused on the medical and support needs of children and families facing retinoblastoma (RB).

Meetings with clinicians, RB survivors, and community leaders in Kenya in 2006, identified the need for a national strategy to improve RB survival in East Africa. In 2007, members of a global team from Canada and the UK traveled throughout Kenya, including Kisumu, Mombasa, Nairobi, and Eldoret, shaking hands, making friends, and assessing sites for “growing” a locally sustainable child life program. I was looking for a “child life” site, a place to incubate child life practices with an existing child-focused staff, space for a playroom, and very visionary hospital leaders willing to “dream big” with us. When I heard about a playroom in Eldoret, I emailed a proposal to provide annual child life training and clinical supervision to grow a full child life program there to Sarah Ellen Mamlin, director and chief child advocate of the Sally Test Pediatric Centre at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital. Our inaugural child life training took place during summer 2008, when I pilot tested child life practices and theories within Kenyan healthcare.

Since that initial weeklong intensive, I’ve continued providing engaging, hands-on, rigorous annual trainings for the team, covering child development, the history and value of child life, essential child life theories and practices, from child life research to medical play, procedural preparation, pain management, and play. Learning to work on multidisciplinary teams to support specific populations and situations from burn and oncology patients, including young children and families confronting retinoblastoma diagnosis and treatment and children facing loss of a body part to palliative care and bereavement support. Providing infant massage and child life in the NICU. Supporting siblings and MORE!

What’s most important to remember is this extensive, incredible child life work involves local Kenyan child life health workers providing child life supports to local Kenyan children within the existing public healthcare system. I’m there to teach local staff ways to translate child life concepts and implement child life supports and strategies in Kenya. I’m not there to do the work for them. Creating locally staffed, sustainable programs is the real goal for global child life.

The team received their first international certification as infant massage instructors in 2011, when I brought Andrea Kelly from the International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM/WINC) to Kenya to provide training for 17 hospital staff, including the entire child life team and members of the World Eye Cancer Hope (formerly Daisy Fund).

With all this great training, I could see that the team was ready to begin planning to write the child life certification exam. With all the requirements, I knew this would take great planning to make it locally sustainable and economically viable. With some serious fundraising completed in 2013, Judith Duncan a retired professor from Cambrian College joined us in Kenya to provide the Children and Youth in Healthcare course – required by the Child Life Council for eligibility for the child life certification exam. This incredible course was well received and attended not only by the great child life team from the Sally Test Pediatric Centre but also by a doctor and nurse from Nairobi, a community nurse from Kisumu, and two play therapists from Tanzania.

We have also been able to include other staff from the Sally Test Pediatric Centre – that’s right, there are MORE amazing people involved, including child life assistants, teaching staff, infant staff that provide love and care to abandoned babies, a librarian, and a seamstress who makes clothes and uniforms and teaches interested parents a valuable skill!

With outside funding from a generous donor, a new children’s hospital was built in 2015, on Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital’s campus. This new pediatric hospital, the Shoes 4 Africa hospital, opened in the summer of 2015, and the dynamic team of child life health workers and their assistants provide enriched, play-based, creative activities and child life programming both at the bedside and in the new playrooms on each ward.

As this incredible child life program gained greater and greater visibility  in Kenyan healthcare, we knew certification was essential to validating this new profession in Kenya. In early 2015, I started discussions with the Child Life Council about hosting the child life certification exam in Kenya. Through a lengthy long-distance process, I helped complete all the relevant paperwork for the eligibility assessment for each child life health worker, and with the help of some local and global fundraising, we were able to move forward with the certification exam in Kenya in September 2015. Due to technical issues beyond anyone’s control, the exam did not go smoothly. Our second attempt in late 2015 experienced similar technical challenges. Despite these hurdles, there are now two certified child life specialists in Kenya! Focusing on the positive, we celebrate these certifications and continue to advocate for further testing for the remaining team members in  Kenya.

Remaining positive and focused on the long term goals is essential for me in continuing to grow child life in Kenya. Our strategic plan for the next few years balances maintaining hopefulness with being realistic with our timelines. Two skilled child life health workers offer child life supports in the NICU, including group sessions with the mothers.

The team and I will be working with Dr. Sherwood Burns-Nader from the University of Alabama to complete a child life research study. We remain focused on developing and building the child life i

Internship program that will enable us to properly train staff from other Kenyan hospitals, healthcare centers, and hospices interested in implementing child life in their institutions. Other long term projects include offering the required child life course at Moi University in Eldoret, Kenya, and building an appropriate technological infrastructure and staff to support future child life certification exams in Kenya.

I encourage skilled child life specialists from Western programs interested in child life in Kenya to share or donate child life resources and materials, both new and used. Even simple presentations and posters for specific patient populations that can be adapted to the Kenyan child life program are valuable. Help us raise awareness of the Sally Test Pediatric Centre and the Kenyan child life program by sharing the video on social media and visiting the web pages. Donations help us cover the costs for running annual and ongoing child life programs – consider making a donation – every bit helps! 

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