PATERSON, NJ - Hospitals are not fun places, especially not for a child. Aside from being sick or recovering, children can become lonely, bored or even depressed staying in a hospital. But imagine, having live entertainment?
At St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center, Giggles, a non-profit Paterson-based children’s theatre program, brings mimes, live choral groups, yoga programs and even Bingo games for the children on a regular basis.
Marie Caliendo, director of the Giggles Children’s Theatre at Medical Missions for Children, Inc., recounted the story of Frank and Peg Brady, the couple who started the non-profit organization. While traveling in Madrid, the Bradys witnessed a puppet show at a hospital. During the show, kids who were in pain began laughing and seemed to forget their troubles for the moment. “Laughter is the best medicine,” Caliendo said.
Following the trip, the Bradys went to St. Joseph’s to create a children’s theater in the hospital, and thus, Giggles premiered February 2005, presenting two live shows per week.
In addition to live performances, Giggles also uses Polycom, a video conference which allows hospitalized kids to go on virtual field trips. Recently, Polycom donated a virtual field trip to Australia. “I’m still flabbergasted when I think about it,” Caliendo said. “They created an underwater barrier reef replica.”
While specifically gearing their audience to hospital patients, Giggles shows are open to all Paterson residents. The theatre seats 80 and is televised for patients too sick to leave their rooms. All shows are recorded and re-broadcasts are shown over the Giggles channel, not only at St. Joseph’s in Paterson, but at St. Joseph’s in Wayne and St. Vincent’s Nursing Home in Cedar Grove.
The non-profit organization completely depends on grants — including a grant from the City of Paterson over the past several years — and donations. And all entertainers are volunteers. “When you talk about a community coming together, it’s amazing to me,” Caliendo said. “These beautiful people come and help us out.”
One of the most poignant stories Caliendo remembers is when she first started working with Giggles. A sweet 8-year-old boy just had surgery and was in quite a bit of pain. The mom encouraged him to go to the theater to see the show. His doctor wanted the boy to walk, even if it hurt.
The chilld didn’t want to go.
Caliendo didn’t want to pressure the boy. But eventually he took the walk down the hall – without a wheel chair. “It was a slow, painful walk,” she said.
Rhythm Nation, a dance troop from Montclair State University, performed a tap and hip hop show that day. Suddenly the boy was smiling and giggling. Then he was laughing.
“His mom and I looked at each other,” said Caliendo. “She was looking at me with tears in her eyes.” The boy, on his tip toes, struggled to run and waddle back to the room to tell his dad what he had seen. “It really affects you when you see what you are doing is working,” she continued. “That was a big highlight!”
Tiffany Shevchik, head of the child life department at St. Joe’s considers Giggles a great thing to have for the children. “When you’re in the hospital, you’re not able to get to other places,” she said. “It gives them the opportunity to feel they are in other places.”
Written by Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta