Calming creativity: the charity helping children cope with hospital

Laura web crop

Laura Young MBE, chief executive of the Teapot Trust, was named Charity Champion at the Scottish Charity Awards 2017.

10th July 2017 by Gavin Stuart 0 Comments

Like most children, Verity was scared of needles. When she knew she had to go for a blood test, she’d hide or lash out. But there was nothing her parents could do – Verity had been living with lupus since she was a young girl. She needed the tests. And when she was diagnosed with cancer, she needed more.

“It was like trying to get a screeching cat into its box,” remembers her mother, Laura Young.

“She absolutely hated it.”

One morning before a hospital visit, Verity simply disappeared. Laura thought she’d ran away, until she finally found her daughter hiding under a pile of washing.

When doctors see children who have come from us they always say they’re in a much better frame of mind

It felt like the end of the road. Despite their best efforts, neither Laura nor her husband John could calm Verity down before her trips to hospital. They tried to get psychological help, but were told there would be a six month wait.

It was then that inspiration struck.

“We asked the hospital if we could arrange for one of our babysitters to meet us there,” Laura explains.

“She was an art student, and we knew that drawing and painting really calmed Verity down.

So it was art that finally got her to go to hospital. Even when we were living in East Lothian and her treatment was in Glasgow – a 90-minute drive - she’d come along happily because now she had something to look forward to.

“At the time, I remember asking around and realising there weren’t any art therapists at children’s hospitals. I thought, we really need to do something about this.

“That’s when the idea of the Teapot Trust was born.”

"We give them an opportunity to get messy"

Calming creativity: the charity helping children cope with hospital

We always start our groups where there are rheumatology clinics. People sometimes don’t understand that in many cases these children will never be cured and will have to live a highly medicated existence their entire lives.

All of our service staff are fully-trained psychotherapists, usually with master’s degrees in art therapy. They’re trained to deal with highly-specialised problems. Some children are uncomfortable vocalising their feelings; others can have serious, complex mental health issues. It’s essential that our therapists are able to form a good relationship with any child, whatever their situation.

Laura Young explains the charity's methods and ethos: "The therapy is completely directed by the children themselves, and quite often we find we’re giving them an opportunity to get messy and creative that they don’t usually have in their day-to-day lives.

At the least, the therapy tables act as a distraction – from the hospital, from their conditions, from treatment. At most, they can be somewhere for kids to release their anxiety and to focus. It puts their heads in the right place, and what they create gives them something to show from hospital other than another plaster. 

It can be a great help for parents too, because it lets them interact with their children in a way that isn’t all about illness. And in a lot of cases, it’s the first time that the parents have made a clay pot, which is a great thing to share with their children. 

After Verity died in 2009, her parents found a notebook in which the eight-year-old had written a short phrase: “Big or small, there’s always something you can do.”

For Laura and John, the words became a way for them to honour their daughter’s memory and help other children going through similar experiences.

Initially, the plan was to simply raise money to contract art therapists for children’s wards. But they soon realised there were no organisations that could provide them.

Laura says: “There was some support for children with ‘well-known’ diseases, but nothing for those like Verity who were undergoing rheumatherapy.

“So at that point it became obvious that we were going to have to do this ourselves.”

In 2010, they set up the Teapot Trust, and by 2011 they had raised enough funds for their first project – hiring two therapists to run a drop-in art table at the sick children’s hospital in Edinburgh.

The table was a huge hit with parents and children, and it wasn’t long before doctors and hospital staff also saw the benefits.

“When they see children who have come from us they always say they’re in a much better frame of mind for their treatment,” says Laura.

“So the staff don’t have to spend time calming the children down. It’s at the stage now that hospitals are approaching us, rather than the other way round.”

In just a few months, the trust expanded to other hospitals – first in Scotland, then south of the border. The trust now runs a table two days a week at Great Ormond Street and is currently in talks with a children’s hospital in Liverpool. Its success continued last month when it scooped the Charity Champion title at the Scottish Charity Awards.

Laura gets the most calls after medical conferences, when doctors tell their colleagues how much the therapists have helped. One thing she always gets asked is how the trust got its name.

“It came from Verity,” she explains.

“One of her medications required her to drink a lot of fluids after taking it – which she hated. So we used to bring out Granny’s tea set for "parties".

“That used to settle her down, and she’d have a drink. The teapot became a very important part of her life.

“It’s quite a nice metaphor for what we do. Art therapy is wonderfully calming and supportive – just like having a good cup of tea.”