Living Proof Exhibit has made many hearts leap in the Quad-Cities with its “Make Hope Soar” birdhouse project, and now that art initiative has taken wing for Chicago senior citizens.

Chicago Methodist Senior Services (CMSS) this month has partnered with the Moline-based nonprofit, so far producing 80 decorated

Examples of birdhouses decorated for “Make Hope Soar: The Birdhouse Project.”

birdhouses (done by staff and residents) that will be given to people impacted by cancer.

“It’s really been an amazing turnout for this project,” Jenn Ross, the art programming coordinator for CMSS, said Friday. “I think there is this real strong connection to cancer and how it has affected people’s lives so dramatically. It’s a common thing now – it’s almost impossible to find someone who hasn’t been affected by cancer. It really resonated with people. Everyone felt really motivated.”

Residents with memory loss and Alzheimer’s are able to have a lot of pride in their artwork, Ross said. “They understand they’re giving back to somebody in a positive way and are real excited to do that. There’s just so much positivity that came from this project.”

“Especially with the pandemic, we’ve been seeing so many negative side effects, because of the levels of isolation,” she said. “That’s caused people a lot of additional confusion, and we’re seeing high levels of depression and anxiety. So having an opportunity like this really gives people purpose – not only as they engage creatively, being able to use their minds in ways they might not have been using them.

“It’s giving people a sense of belonging again,” Ross said. “It’s so important, in general, for people to give back and especially when we’re talking about older adults, and our population is primarily women. They have cared for their families their whole lives – they’re teachers, they’re nurses.”

Being isolated in a residential facility, with the pandemic on top of it, having art as an outlet lets them get out of their heads and reconnect to the community at large, Ross said.

Based in Andersonville, CMSS offers memory care, short-term rehabilitation, long-term skilled nursing, supportive living, low-income

John Gould is director of dining and life enrichment for Chicago Methodist Senior Services.

housing, and community services for older adults.

Its mission is to support, improve, and enhance the quality of life for older adults of all faiths and backgrounds by empowering them to live with dignity and respect. CMSS serves about 200 residents across five buildings, said John Gould, corporate director of dining and life enrichment.

He met Living Proof Exhibit executive director Pamela Crouch online at the Livestrong Icon Summit in mid-October.

“We were talking about her programs, and I thought this was an amazing program,” Gould said Friday. “We connected later to see how we could work together.”

“We try to find projects like this,” he said, noting during the 2019 holidays, residents helped put together care package for the homeless.

Examples of birdhouses decorated for “Make Hope Soar: The Birdhouse Project.”

“They like that because they feel like they’re still an active part of the community. This, giving birdhouses back to an oncology department, so many of our residents have been impacted by some way or another by cancer.”

This is a project that can be done anywhere as residents continue to practice social distancing. Each completed birdhouse will be distributed throughout Chicago to people who have been touched by cancer. The birdhouses might go to a patient, to someone who has a loved one dealing with cancer, or to someone who works at one of the cancer centers.

Birdhouses and art supplies are provided by CMSS to anyone interested. They can decorate in any fashion, and are encouraged to write a message of encouragement on the underside of the birdhouse, such as “sending warm thoughts,” “thinking gently of your health,” or “You are loved.”

“The pandemic and other stress is going to be with us for a while. Knowing that people are going to be able to find little bits of joy in creating a birdhouse and sharing that joy with others is wonderful,” Crouch (a four-time cancer survivor) said Friday.

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“I’m grateful that what brought me joy and peace during my cancer treatments is going to do the same for countless others,” she said.

Crouch gave a Zoom presentation to CMSS on Jan. 15 about the project.

“We’ve never been able to have manpower to have our programming in the Chicago area, so having the virtual conference John and I attended, we’re now able to partner,” she said. “It’s the best. I love collaboration. Since they are in Chicago, I hope to someday be able to meet in person.”

Project began for LPE anniversary

A wide variety of people, ages 2 to 82, participated in the “Make Hope Soar” project, including in and around the Quad-Cities, plus from

Examples of birdhouses decorated for “Make Hope Soar: The Birdhouse Project.”

Kentucky, Texas, and California.

LPE provides free programs that celebrate the therapeutic benefits of the arts for cancer patients, survivors, family members and caregivers. The Moline-based nonprofit celebrated its 10-year anniversary last year.

“ ‘Make Hope Soar: The Birdhouse Project’ was originally planned to help celebrate our 10th anniversary,” Crouch said in August. “Making little birdhouses, painting them and giving them away to newly diagnosed cancer patients was one of the first programs Living Proof Exhibit did, and we wanted to bring it back. As it turns out, it’s a good thing that we did.”

“On the bottom of each birdhouse, we’re asking people to include a little note of hope or something inspirational and these birdhouses will be distributed not only to cancer patients and survivors, but also perhaps to a caregiver or a family member,” she said.

“Because of the pandemic, scout groups that couldn’t work together are creating birdhouses; churches that can’t meet are creating birdhouses.”

“They’re each creating something that’s going to bring joy to someone who’s going through a really tough time,” Crouch said. “Right now, the stress from the pandemic is off the charts for people who have been touched by cancer.”

“People aren’t getting out; they need to keep their hands busy,” she said. “The Birdhouse Project has changed because of the pandemic, but it was perfect because of the pandemic.”

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In October, over 200 were displayed at the Figge Art Museum, along with the Living Proof “Visualization of Hope” art exhibit. Then, LPE made several distributions of the birdhouses to Genesis Cancer Center, Unity Point Health-Trinity Cancer Center and Gilda’s Club.

“We had one painted by 2-year-old, full of his fingerprints,” Crouch said, noting they’ve also gone to caregivers and oncology nurses. “We

Pamela Crouch is executive director of Living Proof Exhibit.

want everybody to know our programming is for anyone touched by cancer.”

Ross has worked for CMSS four and a half years, and has used several approaches to art therapy, including bringing in guest speakers and having field trips.

“I’ve been really enjoying the opportunity, really as a silver lining,” Ross said of encouraging residents to make art during the Covid pandemic. “There are ways for people to work independently.”

“I distribute materials to residents, with a notice to explain what the activity is, a reminder about why we’re doing it,” she said. “We do have small groups where we gather with three residents – everybody in masks and very socially distant.”

“We’ve had a really great response,” Gould said of residents and staff. “We’ve had response from everywhere – even some nursing staff, who might not have taken the time before, and our dementia unit.”

“It’s been nice to see; we’ve tried other initiatives over the past year to try self-care for our front-line staff,” he said. “We really haven’t found a lot of things they’ve wanted to participate in. So it’s been really exciting to see the front-line staff be part of this and they’ve really taken it up. Our accounting department, our executive director has been part of it, people on all levels.”

Residents also enjoy feel like they’re giving back to the community, Gould said.

On Sunday, they’re giving second doses of the Covid vaccine to staff and residents and will set up a display of several decorated birdhouses, Gould said.

“We’ll show them what’s been done and encourage them that there’s still time to get involved,” he said. They plan to distribute the small houses to local hospitals in early February.

A pointillist painting by Nancy Early.

Crouch would like to see other senior-living homes and similar organizations be part of the birdhouse project.

“People are so isolated; if you’re impacted by cancer, a family member who has cancer, you’re not going out anytime soon,” she said. “It’s going to be months, even beyond the pandemic. When you’re going through cancer treatment, your immune system is much more fragile, you’re generally isolated. I see these birdhouses sticking around.”

LPE will have its first creative session of 2021 on Feb. 9, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., via Zoom, on pointillism.

“Painting with dots is a very meditative practice,” according to the class description at www.livingproofexhibit.org. “It’s all about color! You’ll learn how putting dots of different colors near each other create color combinations that can be lively and fun.”

All ages and abilities are welcome for the free class with artist Nancy Early. She has been an art instructor for 20 years, and an artist most of her life. She started painting with dots when she lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and commuted to her job on the train. She saw most of the commuters with their heads in their laptops, working before work. Since she didn’t want to do that and wanted the hour to be creative, she started carrying small note cards and markers with her.

When she began to draw, she quickly realized that the jostling of the train was not going to let her draw a straight line. Out of necessity, she began using dots to create her lines and curves and shapes.

For questions on LPE, contact livingproofexhibit@gmail.com.

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.