In our final episode of Season 1 on Finding the Helpers, we have an interview that manages to tie all our other interviews beautifully together. Mary Affee is a licensed clinical social worker, PhD candidate, and specializes in play and trauma therapy. She left her bustling practice in North Carolina to return to her original home of New York City for four weeks to be a therapeutic presence for frontline medical staff in hospitals as they faced the height of New York’s COVID-19 peak.
Like many front line staff and our other interviewees, Mary stressed a few times during this interview that she is not a hero. Mary’s daughter was diagnosed with cancer at 16 years old, and Mary truly saw this deployment to New York as her time to pay it back to the medical staff who saved her daughter’s life.
As we listened to Mary’s story, it was clear to us that with her clinical background, personal experiences, and the four weeks she spent working in New York hospitals, that Mary was not only going to help us share another powerful story, but that she tied together so many of the profound lessons we have learned through these interviews in the past four months.
Mary was set up in the hospital in New York with art supplies and creative activities in the same place every day, showing up as consistent, predictable support, equipped with the ability to administer psychological first aid and/or crisis interventions for hospital staff.
She shares a personal story of her work, when she interacted with a cleaning professional in the hospital, “[When] people think first responders, they think of medical staff. Often we overlook people in housekeeping. I mean, they are right there cleaning up.” The cleaning staff noticed that Mary was going to be leaving soon, and came to her and asked for a painted rock. Mary, being an expressive therapist, initially noticed her instinct to want to encourage this woman to create her own rock, but the woman was insistent on having one that was already painted. The woman then said to Mary, “I want something to always remember you by.” Mary goes on to say, “It took my breath away. You never know what a smile will do for somebody.”
When Mary says you never know how a connection is going to affect someone, she is talking about exactly what Laura Fuchs, the photographer in NYC, taught us when she described her work with the mask smiles project -- that you can, in fact, smile at someone through a mask. Additionally, they taught us how small acts, such as showing up in the same place every day to show support, or simply smiling at a stranger, can plant a seed in someone which has the potential to grow beyond what we could ever imagine. Laura also reminded us that, we never really know the complete ripple effect of how reaching out for connection will land on someone. This makes taking the risk and reaching out, especially right now, absolutely worth it.
“Just love people, be present, be real, be authentic. Those are the things that keep it real, keep us human, keep us in a shared experience.”
In Season 1 of Finding the Helpers, we are bringing personal stories of front line staff and families impacted by COVID-19. Our diverse guests will be invited to share their story of being on the front line, and in combination to their story, two expressive art therapists will provide art and creative activities that will support the challenges the individual and their family is facing. These could include ideas for short relaxation techniques to be done on the front line, creative ways to explain in kid friendly terms what is happening, ways to stay connected to family and children during long periods of isolation, etc. Throughout the podcast, conversation will include mental health insight related to the pandemic, anxiety and stress, grief and loss, resiliency, coping skills, and understanding the pandemic. Presented by the nonprofit Playing to Live's, whose history began in 2014 as a grassroots program focused on bringing play and creativity in the midst of the Ebola deadly viruses. Following our work in Ebola, we have continued our work as advocates and creators for play and expression across the globe in refugee settings, post war countries, and in the United States of America.
Lindsay Bingaman is the Regional Program Manager for Playing to Live, based in Nairobi, Kenya.