While COVID-19 concerns seem to be controlling many of our actions these days, Child Life specialists at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital are taking the other end of the puppet strings.

In a joyful way.

Child Life and Grand Rapids Civic Theatre faculty and staff are collaborating on a puppet project to replace the annual performance the civic theater actors and actresses perform every spring at the children’s hospital.

Instead of viewing the live performance, young patients are offered the opportunity to draw a puppet, give it a name and personalize it with character traits, likes and dislikes.

Civic Theatre faculty members then animate the drawings, with talking mouths, messages and humor. The puppets go live on in-room television screens at the children’s hospital.

Rosie Schutter, 5, created three puppets during a recent five-day admission for chemotherapy to treat kidney cancer. Pom Pom (a lion), Rosie (her namesake) and Elli (named after her 7-year-old sister) would soon spring to life.

Rosie has a beaming smile and a determined spirit. With the help of Bridget Sova, a music therapist with the Child Life team, Rosie selected from markers, colorful stickers, miniature fluffy balls and other supplies strewn across her hospital bed table.

She fashioned her puppet friends with colorful creativity, and plenty of personality. Pom Pom the lion is “the silly one.” Rosie, surrounded in hearts, is “the happy one.” And Elli has heart.

Rosie’s mom, Amanda Schutter, said the puppet project provided a fun diversion during the hospital stay.

“She had a smile on her face the whole time,” Schutter said. “This hospital stay was very tough for her because of the visitor restrictions. It was just the two of us the whole time. They spent a good amount of time with her. It was nice to have that distraction.”

The heart and rainbow stickers Rosie pasted to her puppets reflect recent good news—a scan showed no signs of cancer.

Rosie said she loved the puppet project. The best part? “I liked the heart stickers and the rainbow stickers were very cool,” she said.

Sova said the project is popular with young patients.

“It’s a great way for our kids to feel the community is with them, even though they can’t be physically with them,” she said.

The Civic Theatre Travelling Troupe originally planned to perform “The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley” at the children’s hospital on April 21. Because of COVID-19, those plans fell flat.

Sova contacted Allyson Paris, associate director at the theatre, for alternative ideas.

“We knew, with a little creativity, there were other ways we could connect the civic theatre to the patients,” Sova said.

Paris suggested the puppet shows. Then Child Life team members figured out how to engage the kids while still maintaining safety guidelines.

The kids took it from there—coming up with ideas for their puppets, then having the puppet drawings sent to the theatre. For children in isolation, patients or their parents tape the puppet drawing to the glass door for a photograph.

“Then I send that puppet design to one of our faculty members in the school of theatre arts,” Paris said, “and that person brings the puppet to life, writes a little skit for the puppet and records the skit to send back.”

So far, two videos have been completed, with more in the works.

“I’m amazed by the puppet shows,” Sova said. “They turned out so well. The kids have been loving it.”

Sova said it’s sad the kids couldn’t see a live performance, but the puppet shows are uplifting just the same.

“The performance is always one of the most anticipated events of the whole year,” Sova said. “It’s one of those shows where everyone goes all out.”

Sova said special events bring joy to kids’ lives.

“Our community visitors give the kids something to look forward to, and make the hospital a less scary place to be,” she said. “The patients and families are really missing this right now, so projects like these make a huge difference. It is that essential message right now—that although our visitors are not physically present, they are there (in spirit), thinking of our patients and rooting for them to get well.”

Paris said she and the entire troupe love bringing the magic of the stage to children’s hospital patients, and is glad they could figure out a way for the show to go on.

“Being in live theatre right now is really tricky,” Paris said. “I’m so delighted that the staff at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital was willing to collaborate with us on this project and I hope it has brought them as much joy as it has brought us.”

Sarah Smith, a teacher at the hospital, worked with one of the kids who submitted his drawings for puppet creation.

“As a very creative student, he enjoyed having no limits to this activity,” Smith said. “He blended different types of animals together and added playful elements, like wings, to things that normally wouldn’t have them.”

Smith appreciates the theatre team’s collaborative spirit.

“It is a great reminder that in unusual times, our imagination can help us continue to dream,” she said.