Helping Sick Kids Just Be Kids: Alumni Interview with Sarah Smith ’97

Sarah (Lepard) Smith (’97) is a former secondary English and Psychology education major at Hope. Currently she works at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids. We asked Sarah to share some of her walk with us.

Share your work path in your pre-Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital years.

After graduation, I was hired as a high school teacher and coach in Alpena. I had the opportunity to teach 10th grade English, Introduction to Psychology (using Dr. Myers’ textbook), and Creative Writing.

In 1998, I moved back to West Michigan and began teaching in the English Department at Hamilton High School. Over my thirteen years of teaching in this district, I had the pleasure of working with many students across a variety of English courses. Perhaps my favorite course was Novels, where we could dive deeper into the literature and read simply because it is, as Mr. Moreau says, “a lifelong, pleasurable activity.” I learned so much from the students and staff in both of these professional experiences, for which I am forever grateful.

In 2011, when the new children’s hospital opened, I felt prompted to reach out and see if they had a teaching position. So I made a call to a former Hope grad (and my Child Life intern supervisor from my psychology days in the summer of ’96) to see if they had a teacher. It seemed the perfect blend of my experiences, bringing my two majors and my interests together.

How long have you been at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and what do you do there?

I began phase two of my career, at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, in July of 2011, just six months after the building opened. This was truly a leap of faith, jumping into such a unique role. As a hospital teacher/school liaison, I have the privilege of working alongside children and families as they look to find a balance between their medical and academic needs. Our hospital school program aims to bridge the gap between hospital, school, and home. We work to educate a child’s school and peers about his/her diagnosis and treatment and how those may impact classroom performance and attendance. We provide educational opportunities during treatment, and help our kids maintain involvement in normal routines within an abnormal environment.

How did a liberal arts education at Hope College help to prepare you for what you now do in service to the children with whom you work?

It is clear to me now that I was being groomed for this work during my years at Hope College. As a psychology major, I spent the summer before my senior year interning in Child Life, helping normalize the hospital environment through distraction and medical play. This was my first exposure to working within a hospital setting. The internship taught me the importance of building rapport with children and offering encouragement through difficult times by using distraction and honing into their developmental level to meet them in that moment.

As a hospital teacher, I have to be ready to work with children who are practicing their letters and crafting research papers. We study AP Biology and learn about the scientific method. We practice counting to ten, and we solve problems using imaginary numbers – sometimes with only an elevator ride in between. Thank you, Hope College, for providing a liberal arts education. Having a little exposure to many curricular topics has served me well.

And can you speak to the impact of your English major specifically?

My dad instilled the importance of being a good writer and communicator, but my English professors truly contributed to my growth in these areas. Professor Portfleet challenged me to think critically and value the power of a story (and its teller), a trait I use daily in working within a hospital setting. Professor Mezeske reminded me of the importance of the writing process and the power of revision. This attention to detail helps as I draft documents for a student’s school personnel.  Professor Ellis encouraged me to be an out-of-the-box problem solver and to sprinkle life with moments of joy – something I strive to do on a daily basis for the patients I serve.

My true passion was within the realm of secondary education. I brought my hospital-acquired skill set with me as I began my student teaching the following school year under the guidance of my Teaching of English prof, the amazing Mr. Moreau. What a gift to have his support as an instructor of how to teach Shakespeare and Emerson and how to guide our students to grow as proficient readers and writers.

Do you have any highlights from your days at Hope that you’d like to share?

Mr. Moreau remains a mentor today in all facets of life. I have many fond memories from my days at Hope, but what I appreciate the most are the professors who provided unwavering support academically and extended support professionally, and those whom I can call upon as friends even today.

What do you like to read?

I enjoy a wide variety of writings; however, I tend to be most drawn to nonfiction books that offer glimpses into the human spirit – stories that embody resiliency, perseverance, and survival. Two favorites are Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Calahan and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I like to learn tough lessons from the characters’ experiences so that I do not have to learn them the hard way.

Is there anything else we should know, Sarah?

I am learning a lot from my students. It is tough to be them. Yes, they are incredibly brave, courageous, and strong. But, what I think they want the most is to just be kids – not kids with a medical condition. For anyone who may know people in this type of situation, please continue to walk alongside these children and their families by asking them what is most helpful. Allow them to just be themselves, to be sad, or to need space. Invite them and include them, even if they don’t feel up to it. Help them stay connected when they can’t (or don’t feel like being connected). It’s not personal; their bodies are just sick. Sometimes steroids make them behave differently and that’s not your fault or theirs. Just keep being the good friends we know you are by letting them be them. For this and so much more, I thank you, Hope College.

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