Retired Palatine teacher brings healing power of art to hospitalized teens
Shirley Forpe's love for art has led her to some interesting jobs. First as an art teacher at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, where she was also the department chair for District 211.
After her retirement 11 years ago, Forpe, who lives in Palatine, started doing forensic sketch work for the Palatine Police Department, which she learned by taking classes with the FBI Citizens Academy.
Currently, she is at the Palatine Opportunity Center's Community School, where she teaches kids in an after-school program.
"I have to teach," Shirley said. "I just have to do that."
But a health scare in 2015 made substitute teaching difficult for Forpe. That's when she suddenly lost her hearing.
Forpe said she fell asleep on her right ear watching TV one night, and when she woke up she couldn't hear the sound. She kept turning it up and realized it was blaring when she sat up.
She went to the doctor, who cleaned out her left ear, but nothing changed, so she was sent to an audiologist.
"He told me that we all lose our hearing as we age, but I said 'just like that, overnight'?" Forpe said.
She was then referred to Loyola, where she was diagnosed with Meniere's disease, which is a virus that attacks the eardrum. She was given steroids directly in the ear, which helped to improve her hearing by only about 10 percent.
"I waited too long to go to the doctor. I should have acted sooner," Forpe said. "I wasn't sure I could do things with hearing loss."
But she soon realized that, indeed, she could.
Art Helps Heal
In 2016, Forpe's friend Anne Hollenbeck, also a former teacher, was volunteering at Lurie Children's Hospital doing arts and crafts with young patients. She lamented that none of the teens would participate.
"They couldn't get the teens to come down and take part," Forpe said. "Teens don't want to be with the little kids. Maybe they are too self-conscious."
That's when Shirley decided to put her art know-how to work, and Art Helps Heal was born.
Forpe, who has written three how-to books about art on drawing/painting, perspective and design, wrote up a lesson plan of about a semester's worth of work. That was included in a backpack full of high quality art supplies -- pencils, oil pastels, high quality watercolors, brushes, high-end paper and more.
"We have real standards in our supplies," Forpe said. "You can't expect great work from bad supplies."
Forpe and Hollenbeck reached out to area hospitals to see if they would be interested in the program and had a good response.
"We received orders right away," Forpe said, adding that Lurie, Comer, Shriners and a few others were interested.
From 2016 to early 2020, Forpe would go into the hospitals and offer in-person lessons for the teens. And the kids loved it.
Recreations areas were set up for the lessons, and Shrines even dedicated the cafeteria space as more kids would come down.
"They would tell me to expect about 10 kids and it would be close to 18," Forpe said.
Kids would join in wheelchairs, attached to their IV poles, and even in their beds.
At Comer, one patient, whose pain level was at a 9 or 10, still wanted to participate in the project they were working on, so Forpe brought a lap desk, went up to her room and helped her.
"I was holding back tears," Forpe said.
Even kids who weren't actually in the hospital came to the classes to finish projects. And parents went to great lengths to get them there.
"One day I pulled up in my car next to a mom who was getting her kid out of the car and into a wheelchair. It took her about 15 or 20 minutes to get her child situated, and then I realized they came all that way just for my class. It was pretty moving."
Forpe believes the reason the kids are so invested in the art classes is because it isn't just used as a distraction.
"This is real art," Forpe said. "Kids learn how to create things. There is actual learning going on."
The pandemic hits
But all of the in-person learning and distribution of backpacks came to a halt in 2020 when COVID-19 hit.
"The hospitals couldn't handle the orders any more. The kids couldn't have visitors and the staff couldn't work with the kids. The teens were unhappy," Forpe said.
But Forpe didn't just sit back and do nothing. She worked around the problem by creating individual Healing Kits that were sealed up and delivered to staff outside the hospital. For example, at Comer, Forpe said she had to park around the corner in an alley behind the building.
This time the teens would learn from reading a lesson, which was no more than one page. There were also examples of the task at hand, with lots of photos to use as references.
"You can't learn it if you can't see it, so there are lots of photos," Forpe said.
Everything had step-by-step instructions.
Eventually, Forpe was able to do some lessons via Zoom.
"It was a relief for the staff," Forpe said.
Forpe said the hospitals now order a combination of the Healing Kits and backpacks.
"Backpacks are great for long-term patients who are serious about art or were taking art at school when their education was interrupted," Forpe said. "But the Healing Kits are for all patients, some waiting for a room, sitting getting a chemotherapy infusion, or in bed unable to deal with the volume of a backpack."
Forpe said the nonprofit delivers packages four times a year, and sometimes sneaks in something special for holidays like Halloween or Valentine's Day.
In order to keep the kids in art supplies, Forpe said the organization holds dozens of fundraisers, and her retiree friends do a "tremendous amount of donations." She also gets a helping hand from Conant students, who are often fundraising for one charity or another.
"Everyone knows this is real. There is no overhead and no staff to pay. I put the kits together and drive them to the hospitals myself," Forpe said.
And she does it all after suffering another setback with her hearing.
In 2019, she had another episode with her ear.
"It sounded like a siren was going off in my head. I just thought, no, no, no," she said.
This time 80 percent of her hearing was gone.
Vote for Shirley
Forpe's perseverance has been recognized by the Oticon Focus on People Awards, which recognizes outstanding people who are helping to show that hearing loss does not limit a person's ability to make a positive difference in the world.
The program, which has been running for more than two decades, selects winners in four categories: Adult, Student, Advocacy, and Practitioner. Winners in each category receive prizes and national recognition.
Forpe was nominated for the Adult category by a grade school friend.
"She's a writer," Forpe said, "so it must have been a good nomination."
People who want to vote for Shirley to win the award can visit OTICON.com/fop through Nov. 4.
While the recognition is nice, Forpe likes to remain focused on the kids and making sure they can keep their creative juices flowing.
"Everyone should do some art," Forpe said. "If you can understand organization of space and color, you don't have to be good at drawing or painting. If it is good you can trap people with your art and draw them to it. They will see something different every time they look at it. Be creative."