Connecticut Artisan Turns Wood Into Wonder For Hospitalized Children

Published: Tuesday, July 10, 2012

By Sandi Kahn Shelton
New Haven Register

Robert Wilkins, of Clinton, can see beyond a child’s illness — right to the heart of the person lying there in a hospital bed, scared, sometimes isolated, and just waiting and hoping to be made well.

And, in the humblest possible way, Wilkins thinks he can help bring that child’s spark back. He believes it can be found in wood.

For the past 17 years or so, Wilkins — who is called “Woody” by the kids — has been creating building projects for hospitalized kids. As the founder of Dances With Wood, he makes woodworking kits for children who must be in a hospital bed all day, kits that come with pre-sanded pieces of wood and rounded-off edges that make it easy for the child to put together. For kids who are required to stay in the hospital for long periods, Wilkins has even created an intricate pirate ship, complete with sails, and more patterns are in the works.

The result, according to patients, their parents, their caregivers, and the hospital staff, is nothing short of magical. A simple race car, drum, rocket ship, CD rack, or dream box, when created by a kid, they say, can become an instrument of healing.

“I don’t work with sick kids. I work with healthy kids who have bodies with illness,” says Wilkins. “The secret to what I do is letting the kids do it themselves. When they’re allowed autonomy, it displaces the fear, anxiety and depression they feel. It focuses on the light and love and beauty that’s already within the child, helping the child step back into who they were before the illness came.”

Wilkins discovered woodworking himself when he was 6 years old and had a serious illness, so he knows well the power of pounding on a piece of wood. He’s studied curative education, which taught him that one of the beauties of wood-working is that it engages the “will force” of the child.

“A lot of creative things kids do are gentle and soft,” he says. “But when you have to physically grip the tools and engage, when you pound with the mallet, it raises up the life force that every cell in your body is listening for. It gives you endurance.”

Virginia Filippelli of Greenwich is the mother of 22-year-old Pierce, a recent college graduate and an eight-year cancer survivor. When he was 14, Pierce was hospitalized on and off over the course of a year for treatments for Burkitt’s non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

“We were the lucky ones,” she says. She remembers watching Pierce work, day after day, on completing his pirate ship. “It was wonderful for him,” she says. “It was not only a distraction, but it helped him do something creative, to forget about the fear. It made him so happy. We were so grateful to Woody for this project. It brought Pierce such joy.”

Ellen Good, manager of the Child Life Department at Yale-New Haven’s Children’s Hospital, says that the projects go beyond the simple building of the kits. “They invoke a child’s imagination,” she says. “It brings out in them skills they weren’t aware they had. A child building the pirate ship is on a journey. They talk about where the ship could take them, who would be the captain and the crew. Woody is a kid at heart, and he knows what kids need.” Continued...

Wilkins has always been drawn to helping people who are feeling disempowered. He studied to be a teacher, then worked as a cabinetmaker, and has traveled by ship around the world. He’s even been an executive in the business world — but he found he wasn’t happy unless he was reaching out to people who needed his help.

When he left the business world, he took a job in a mental health residential home, making hardly any money and living in a trailer with no running water. It was while he was doing this work (and loving it) that he attended a workshop given by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the author of “To Live Until We Say Goodbye,” and decided to work in a hospice, helping patients there create things for their family members.

Later he worked for the Hole in the Wall Gang camp, helping children who had cancer, and then left from there to start his own business.

It hasn’t always been easy making a living this way, but Wilkins says this business is his passion and his vision. He started it in his garage years ago, and now has a woodworking studio with five part-time employees assembling the kits, as well as a room for creating new ideas. As an official non-profit organization, Dances With Wood is now in 20 children’s hospitals, and has expanded to provide health education as well as woodworking projects for children with bleeding disorders.

Wilkins also works with adult patients who are dealing with breast or prostate cancer, and does workshops with inner-city children who are grieving the death of a family member.

Recently he was given a grant for his work with children by the Petit Foundation, founded by Dr. William Petit in honor of his wife and two daughters who were killed in a home invasion. All his kits are provided to children and families free of charge.

Wilkins says his vision for his organization keeps expanding; he’d love to see it go nationwide.

“Underneath we all long for the deeper purpose of our lives,” he says. “When people ask me how I got into this work, I tell them it’s a process of connecting the dots in my life, and linking to that vision.”

For Wilkins, those moments come when he’s with a child who’s working on a project. He’s silent with the child, letting the process of creation unfold, letting the work belong to the child alone.

“And then you see that smile,” he says. “And that’s why I do this work.”Continued...