Have you seen the Child Life Council’s promo video, “That’s Child Life” with Teresa Schoell? She is the Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) in the film that has helped to create a successful one person child life program at a community hospital in Rochester, New York.
I reached out to Teresa to share her story of finding her path to child life and operating a successful one person program.
When I was a little girl, about three years old, I asked my mother “How do you know what you want to be when you grow up?” My mother was a doctor in the newborn intensive care nursery, and found such joy and fulfillment in her work with the hospital’s tiniest patients. “Find something you love to do, Teresa,” she told me. “Then find someone to pay you to do it.” To her amusement, I replied, “I love to play!” Little did either of us know that more than three decades later I would find my perfect career, doing exactly that.
I came to child life as a second career. I had finished my Master’s degree in Child and Family Studies at Syracuse University in 2000, and then spent seven years teaching parenting/play classes. After that, I spent two years at home following the arrival of our son, and wanted to move in a new direction in my professional life when I returned to work. Thinking back, I had greatly enjoyed my time volunteering in my mother’s NICU under the supervision of the child life specialist, and thought perhaps that might be a great career choice for me. Child life would combine my love of play, with my education, experience, and the medical literacy absorbed from a childhood as the daughter of a doctor. My husband’s academic career had taken us to Atlanta for two years, and I had been volunteering at the children’s hospital there. I applied for the internship with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and was thrilled to be accepted. My rotations in hematology/oncology, and PICU/pulmonary flew by, and my mentors poured knowledge and experience into me as fast as I could absorb it. As I wrapped up my internship, I began the intimidating process of looking for my first child life job. I sent my resume to the NICU child life specialist I had volunteered with at Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong back in Rochester, NY (home!), and crossed my fingers. They had no openings at the time, but the NICU specialist passed my resume to her manager, who passed my resume along to the team at the community hospital across town, which had secured grants to start a one-person child life program. After a phone interview, then a trip to New York for two whirlwind days of interviews and tours, I was offered the job at Rochester General Hospital, and started two weeks later.
Looking back, I have sometimes wondered if the team at Rochester General really understood just how green I was, coming straight out of my internship to start a new program. But my leaders and advocates here have expressed nothing but their complete confidence in me, and have supported me at every turn. Without their endorsement in the value of child life services, and the trust they placed in me to build the program to fit my vision, I would have failed in my first months. Even with their support, I still had plenty of stumbles, fumbles, and embarrassing failures. But that is part of the journey, right? No child learns to walk without first falling. Most of my early mistakes involved me trying to duplicate something I had seen in my internship (like hospital-wide events!) without truly assessing the need and fit in my new community hospital first. I also fell on my figurative face when I tried to solve every problem, wedge child life into every situation, and offer my solutions to every challenge. The medical team here had been providing compassionate care for pediatric patients for decades without any child life services. Once I learned to trust and appreciate all the amazing things the team could do, and critically assess where (and if) child life was needed (and wanted) before I barged in, things became much smoother. I still faced plenty of challenges, like winning over the nursing teams, growing my clinical skills, and balancing the clinical and non-clinical needs of my growing program, but these problems were much easier to conquer when I stop putting round pegs in square holes.
I think back on my first 18 months as the “Hey! I’m here! Utilize me!” years. The next 18 months were the “Woah! Everybody hang on, there’s just one of me!” years. By year three, the adult world had discovered I could help with children of adult patients, and the adult palliative care team put me on speed dial. My primary clinical areas were in-patient and pediatric emergency, but more and more areas outside that started consulting me to support pediatric patients. I took on more big projects, like the overhaul of our playroom, and teaching nurse education classes. While I loved feeling needed, valued, and effective, I quickly found myself overextended.
With the successful transition from grant-funding to hospital-funding at the end of year three, my program’s future stabilized. So, as the fourth year started, I refocused with an eye towards balance, sustainability, and long term planning. I looked into offering practicums and internships (neither a good fit for my program), and trialed having a fellowship (a fantastic fit, but I couldn’t get funding) and submitted my first formal request for a second child life position. Leadership agreed that there might be need, but with the hospital investing in the transition to electronic medical records, there was no funding. After that, I experimented with different ways to track metrics, demonstrate need, and showcase the value of my program. A year later when I submitted my second proposal for an additional staff position, I crammed it full of numbers, graphs, and hard data on metrics and needs. This time, leadership agreed in a heartbeat that a second child life specialist was absolutely needed . . . but with the big merger coming, it was a time for fiscal caution.
For me, patience and persistence are two sides of the same coin. By accepting the second round of “no” with good grace, I earned respect from administration. I continued to develop my program, respond to the ever changing needs of my facility, and document the value of the work I was doing. My third formal proposal went in at the end of last year. And guess what? Third time’s a charm! To my utter delight and excitement, a second full-time position has been approved, and the job opening went up on our website this morning! The next steps in my child life journey will focus on selecting and welcoming the new child life specialist, and nurturing my program though this new and exciting transition. Much like watching my son grow, I enjoy each new phase of my program’s growth and development. I can’t wait to see what’s next!
Teresa Schoell, MA, CCLS
Click here to apply for the child life position at Rochester General Hospital.
Check out Teresa in action