Making Magic Beyond the Classroom for Chronically Ill Kids

 In Education, Inspiration, Lifestyle, Our Mission

Written by: Kendra Racouillat, Education Pioneers

It’s 93 degrees in Glendale, California, and Kara Allen Soldati’s passion for innovation is as palpable as the May heat.

Kara, a 2010 Education Pioneers Graduate School Fellowship Alumna, and I meet to talk about her work leading the nonprofit CoachArt, the bold vision she has for her organization, and her recent selection to the 2015 Pahara Institute NextGen Network.

We sit at a table in dappled shade on the campus of Disney Interactive (President Jimmy Pitaro is a CoachArt board member) to see some of CoachArt’s work in action: 20 CoachArt kids have created paintings, drawings, and sketches under the guidance and teaching of Disney artists, and now those pieces are being auctioned to Disney employees as a fundraiser for CoachArt.

“Our partnership with Disney has been a perfect fit,” Kara says, “as both of our organizations are entirely committed to creating communities that make magic with young people.”

To the tune of Frozen’s “Let it Go” playing on the Disney campus’ loudspeakers, Kara talks about why she’s focused on disrupting her organization’s operating model to reach more young people, their families, and their communities.

“I have both a deep respect for tradition and a deep love of innovation, disruption even,” she says. “I see so much potential in CoachArt. It excites me to think about how we can move CoachArt beyond start-up mode, and ensure we realize our shared impact beyond our written mission statement.”

CoachArt was created to offer no-cost art and athletic lessons to chronically ill children and their siblings from under-resourced families, but Kara’s vision is even bolder than that.

“We’re building a community for families who have experienced layers of marginalization,” Kara explains.

Currently, CoachArt serves 1,300 young people and their families in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, and will provide over 20,000 hours of free lessons to their participants in 2015. Hundreds more young people are on CoachArt’s waiting list as they work to recruit new volunteers to meet ever-growing student needs. Through the organization’s 8-week program engagement model, offered in individual home settings or in group clubs, CoachArt matches young participants with local trained volunteers to share their own skills in the arts and athletics by coaching sports, music, drawing, painting, and more.

To increase the number of families CoachArt can serve, Kara is investigating how technology can more quickly and efficiently “match” volunteers with participants while also determining how her team can continue to use data to best measure the impact that CoachArt is making on children and families.

As she sees it, the experience that young people and their families have through CoachArt is a critical part of the children’s education and more than just a diversion from the tough reality of being a kid with a chronic illness like cancer, an autoimmune condition, or a blood disorder. CoachArt is intent on their children being better prepared to learn when they return to school, while they’re in school, and as they grow.

“Many nonprofits focus solely on young people’s illnesses, which is important. But the process of learning and loving to learn can get lost,” Kara says. “At CoachArt, our job is to ensure that our young people who have been impacted by an illness as either a patient or a sibling are part of our community and continue to learn experientially.”

Many of the young people CoachArt serves are on a recovery path. So while they’re in and out of hospitals and treatments now – and often can’t go to school – Kara wants to ensure they’re set up to thrive now and in the future as students. Along the way, as they create art and music and play sports, they’re learning.

“At CoachArt, our young people learn without tests or textbooks,” she says. “They learn skills that become a byproduct of the relationships they’ve built with our mentors and volunteers.”

Plus, many young people with chronic illnesses can feel like they’re not heard, or they have physical limitations that mean that they can’t participate in activities like other children. CoachArt aims to give kids a voice and finds ways to enable them to be a part of all activities.

“We have a ‘humans vs. immortals’ kickball game with Google’s team here in LA,” Kara says, “and all of our young people and their families will have the opportunity to participate. During basketball, we have ten kids on the court at once and it’s not evident who is a CoachArt student with an illness or who is a sibling. Everyone plays together. We’re a way in for our families, an inclusive community, instead of a way out.”

In the way that CoachArt breaks down barriers or finds ways to overcome them for their kids, Kara is hoping to do the same for her entire organization: nail the operating model and then expand the organization to reach more families and children in California and beyond.

As a Pahara NetGen Network leader, Kara recently attended her first of three five-day sessions with a cohort of other exceptional education leaders to grow her own leadership skills. Through the Pahara experience, she and her cohort peers will grapple with some of the biggest issues in education together and seek solutions. By engaging with each other and delving into critical issues, they will work together to find new ways and approaches to ensure that all children in American have high quality education options.

It was the longest stretch that Kara has been away from her family, and her young daughter. But she’s intent on making an impact on as many families as she can.

On this May afternoon, surrounded by artwork of CoachArt’s kids, it’s clear that Kara has inspired her team, many of whom are present for the silent auction. They share stories of their work, showcase the CoachArt kids’ artwork enthusiastically, and all are thrilled to be a part of something so meaningful to them.

CoachArt also clearly means a lot to the young artists who’ve displayed their work. In one “artist’s statement,” a CoachArt child writes of her inspiration for her painting to “paint something beautiful that would sell for a lot of money for CoachArt.”

Kendra Racouillat, Education Pioneers