When Child Life specialist Dara Jackson was a student at Osceola High School in Seminole, Florida, she hoped to one day work with children.
“I was trying to find something I could do with kids besides being in the classroom as a teacher,” she says. “So, I applied to be a teen volunteer at All Children’s Hospital. They placed me in the Child Life program, under the supervision of a Child Life specialist, where I got to work directly with patients. That’s where I first learned about Child Life as a profession. I also did some research on my own and spoke to a lot of people before deciding this is what I wanted to do for a career.”
She looked for a college that would be the best fit for her interests and found a bachelor’s program in child development with a concentration in Child Life at the University of Pittsburgh. After graduating, she made several stops at hospitals throughout the country to do a Child Life internship and work as a specialist.
Her career trail led her back to St. Petersburg where she will soon celebrate 13 years as a Child Life specialist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. “So, it was kind of a full circle for me, coming back here to where it all started,” she said.
What’s a typical day for a Child Life specialist?
There really isn’t one. Currently, I work with patients in pre-op, dialysis and the infusion center. My work is based on staff referrals, and I go wherever they need me. As a Child Life specialist, I help provide distraction for patients using tools like tablets or I spy books when kids are getting an IV or their port accessed. In the pre-op area, I prepare patients for surgery and help explain medical procedures in an age-appropriate manner. We find the kids have less anxiety when they understand what’s going on around them and are better prepared. In the dialysis unit, my goal is to help the patients cope and promote positive coping skills. Parents appreciate our service. Some already know about us when they arrive at the hospital and request our services. Others learn about us for the first time when their child must make a hospital or clinic visit.
How has COVID-19 impacted you?
Professionally, it’s been hard because we have been so limited in what we can do. We couldn’t go in certain hospital rooms and that makes it very difficult when your job is to interact one-on-one with patients. We had to really think outside the box to make patient experiences meaningful. We learned how to do Child Life in a totally different way.
Personally, since everything was shut down and I still needed to go to work, you had to think about what to do with my foster kids, figuring out what to do when things seemed to change daily. You had to take it one day at a time.
What’s something that people don’t know about you?
I’m a foster mom to two sisters ages 9 and 13, and I’m in the process of adopting them. I’ve been so fortunate. It was a way for me to give back.
Do you have a favorite memory?
I have lots of good memories, but one that stands out involved a longtime patient who went home and created a song about the staff. That was very touching. That meant a lot. I will never forget her.