The numbers of families signing up for CoachArt's lessons actually grew once the group switched to virtual learning. Credit: Courtesy of CoachArt

All kids have had their lives turned upside down due to the pandemic, but children who live with chronic illnesses have had to stay extremely isolated since they’re at greater risk. The non-profit CoachArt, which is based in Los Angeles and has an office in Oakland, is filling the gaps by providing free, virtual arts and athletics lessons for kids impacted by chronic illness, exposing them to new hobbies—making TikTok dance videos, fashioning paper airplanes, and more—and giving them ways to safely interact with other kids in similar situations. 

Desiree Brown is a senior program manager at CoachArt and mom to 6-year old Grace-Lynn, who has severe asthma and a speech impediment. “I love fellow CoachArt moms, dads, and grandparents. It is incredibly isolating and demanding being a parent of a child with a chronic illness. It’s like you’re always fighting. But having a community to turn to and identify with makes you know you’re not fighting alone,” said Brown. “Now that we are virtual we fight harder to create that community.”

Brown’s daughter Grace Lynn participates in CoachArt programming, having had a personal piano and ballet coach as well as being enrolled in martial arts and yoga club. “I played basketball for the first time with CoachArt and I know how to dribble now,” said Grace Lynn. “I like doing art with CoachArt because I don’t have to rush and I can make it on my own.” 

Brown says that participating in CoachArt lessons has given her daughter more confidence. “I have watched her grow into a child who is more sure of her ability to learn new things. It makes her braver, quicker to take a risk, and try something new.”

The overwhelming combination of costly medical care and a weakened immune system makes it difficult for families to afford recreational activities for their kids. CoachArt’s mission is to create a transformative arts and athletics community for families impacted by childhood chronic illness, expanding programming to healthy siblings in an effort to allow the entire family to learn and grow together. Since 2001, CoachArt has matched volunteers with children for one-on-one and group lessons while also covering the cost of all lesson materials.

Pivoting from in-person lessons to virtual in March 2020 has been easier with CoachArt Connect, an online platform directly connecting volunteers with parents of kids impacted by chronic illness. After completing a brief training, volunteers can serve CoachArt’s community by offering interactive, online arts and athletics lessons in a 1-on-1 or group format.

Molly Dirr, CoachArt’s Deputy Director, has been with the organization since 2011, when the Los Angeles-based non-profit opened its Bay Area office. Ten years later, CoachArt’s Bay Area location has served over 600 children with 173 based in Oakland. 

“Families have reported virtual lessons are just as impactful and more convenient than our in-person programs,” said Dirr. “With our new online model, we are starting a national expansion and are pumped to start introducing CoachArt to families and volunteers in new cities.” After pivoting to virtual programs during the pandemic, CoachArt has been doing more lessons per month than ever before, delivering 18,119 lesson hours in 2020.  

CoachArt matches volunteers wanting to share a specific skill or passion with a child interested in the same activity. Jacqueline Scherer worked with a family in Oakland for over a year, teaching guitar and songwriting every week. 

“Even though I considered myself to be a total novice at guitar, it was enough to start teaching kids songwriting and inspire their creativity,” she said. “I felt disconnected from my community during the pandemic and being involved with CoachArt has grounded me and given me a sense of purpose outside of myself. I truly look forward to seeing my student Angel every week and I’m inspired by his curiosity and determination.” 

Like other volunteers, Scherer got involved with CoachArt because it resonated on a personal level; her mother suffered from the effects of multiple sclerosis throughout Scherer’s childhood. “Chronic illness isn’t always readily visible, but it is really hard on families that deal with it,” she said. “I know how important it is for kids to have a creative or athletic outlet where they can escape from the pain and heaviness of illness.” 

Pati Medina’s daughter Amirah, a 12-year-old girl living with heart disease, has been involved with CoachArt since 2018. Medina has witnessed how participating in CoachArt lessons has made Amirah happy and more confident. 

“She feels like she is a part of a special group where she feels safe to be herself, feeling accepted and supported,” she said. “CoachArt provides a caring atmosphere that supports not just the child but the entire family.”