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Nonprofit in Chile Fostering Resiliency in Children with Chronic Illness and Trauma

Inspired by experience at Drexel, alumna starts foundation to bring new services to Chilean hospitals

April 20, 2016

Kokoi’s name was chosen very carefully. Named in part for koi fish, who swim up through waterfalls and gain incredible strength in the process, and also for kids (“ko”), the moniker perfectly symbolizes the organization’s mission: helping children to become resilient in the face of grave health obstacles.

Paula Escobar ’07, an alumna of the Art Therapy and Counseling Program, drew on inspiration from an internship at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and her Drexel coursework when conceptualizing KoKoi – an nonprofit with services that were not available through any other avenues in her home country of Chile.

“Through my art therapy and counseling classes, I could see the positive impact of this modality, since art is a natural and non-threatening tool of communication for children. However, it was at my internship at CHOP that I could see their very holistic approach to health and its applications to helping children cope, understand their procedures and manage pain,” said Escobar. “In order to have holistic health, you need to do more than heal physically. It’s a complex, complete process. That’s why we started KoKoi.”

One year ago, after returning to Chile, the organization came to be. “Our mission is to reduce stress in children who go through chronic disease and invasive medical procedures, help them manage pain and try to prevent trauma.”

Meeting a need that went unrecognized before the founding of KoKoi, the organization has had tremendous growth and primarily services children at two facilities – Calvo Mackenna and Sagrada Familia. “At Sagrada Familia, they take kids with cancer from all over Chile and house them while they’re having treatment at Calvo Mackenna. We come over and do therapeutic activities that seem playful to them in order to help them prepare and recover from what they’re going through.”

According to Escobar, children understandably have difficulty understanding complicated medical procedures and this can be the most traumatic part of the experience. “A three-year-old kid for example, has very little experience with pain and every way. Therefore, anything related to medical treatment that’s unfamiliar is perceived by the child as threatening and dangerous. You have to be very clear and have the tools to help them explore what’s going to happen and how they’re feeling about it.”

The KoKoi team uses tools and language that kids can digest at their unique stages of development to ease this concern and let them know what’s going to happen to them before, after and during their procedures. Two of the most powerful tools they employ are medical play, art therapy and soon neurofeedback. Neurofeedback will be started by the end of the year and is a modality used to give feedback to the brain. It can be used to treat different bio-psychological issues including pain and anxiety.

Escobar gave an example of communication through medical play and art creation, to show how children project how they experience sickness and intrusive medical procedures. “In one occasion we brought bandages and cast materials for a group of children who were all oncology patients, and we let them play doctor. It was amazing to see how they projected what they were going through using their self-made patient dolls as a vehicle. They started telling me different stories, but not in first person. Some of the kids even made a chemo room where they treated their ‘patients’. This freed them up to really express themselves by telling us more about what the patients were going through.” Children were able to project their fears and anxieties in a non-threatening way in a safe environment where they as "doctors" were able to be in control of illness and treatment.

Escobar has a clear vision for her foundation. “Looking forward, the next step is to be able to produce a video game that helps prepare children before they go to surgery considering the best practices of hospitals internationally. Ultimately, we want to be able to offer our services free of charge to all vulnerable kids in Chile who need them.” With all she has accomplished in one year at the helm of the nonprofit, the future is certainly bright.