Ocean Institute brings unique experience to CHOC mental health patients

Patients in the CHOC Children’s Cherese Mari Laulhere Mental Health Inpatient Center (MHIC) have a friend in Dana Point’s Ocean Institute, a non-profit aimed at educating SoCal youth.

The organization’s mission, “Using the ocean as our classroom, we inspire children to learn,” comes to life in the MHIC, where patients age 3-17 receive hands-on maritime education. It is a unique partnership – one that both patients and staff are passionate about.

After volunteering at CHOC for a long time with medical patients, Ocean Institute Distance Learning Programs Coordinator Danelle Hickman met with MHIC leadership to determine if bringing the Ocean Institute program onto the mental health unit would be feasible. It was a unique idea; few inpatient centers have any volunteers, let alone regular visits from a group of them. But despite the special considerations, everyone was determined to make it work.

After mental health-specific training, members of the Ocean Institute began their valued work in the MHIC in early 2019. Led by Hickman, the STEAM-inspired (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) program includes discussion, questions and answers, hands-on education, activities and art projects. The group also brings in sea animals for patients to see and touch.

Patients in the Cherese Mari Laulhere Mental Health Inpatient Center are able to see and touch live sea creatures during Ocean Institute lessons.

Hickman is passionate about offering patients an engaging experience.

“Our mission is to serve students from all walks of life. We are proud to provide programs for CHOC patients. This fills a community need for more than ‘feel-good’ programs; these powerful educational adventures aim to be life-changing.”

In an early December visit, their eighth of the year, Hickman and two Ocean Institute volunteers began the lesson by asking patients and staff to introduce themselves and discuss their favorite ocean animals. Answers around the table included sharks, whales, sea otters, sea turtles, seals and others. One patient chose jellyfish because of a memorable scene in the Disney-Pixar film “Finding Nemo.” Another patient chose dolphins, finding them “graceful but powerful when they need to be.”

The team then presented the patients with three varieties of live sea star and two preserved sea turtles. The group passed around the animals, noting some of them felt soft and others rough. The observation turned into a discussion about the difference between vertebrates and invertebrates; the patients worked together to figure out which category each animal falls into.

In one lesson, patients were introduced to a few different species of sea star and were able to compare and contrast their features.

Seeing the lesson unfold makes it clear why the Ocean Institute partnership is so valued in the MHIC.

“The thought of bringing ocean life onto an inpatient mental health unit was new for me,” says Director of the MHIC Dani Milliken. “Luckily, Danelle was so amazing, kind and flexible as we walked through all of our dynamics and special needs. And now, we couldn’t be happier with how the program has fit into our unit. Patients absolutely love having the Ocean Institute visit, and the buzz of excitement lasts long after each session. Even our most isolative patients enjoy interacting with the animals and teachers.”

For patients on the unit, the visits are about much more than learning about the ocean.

“Having community members come onto an inpatient mental health unit and be side by side with patients, learning and growing with them, is truly remarkable,” says Milliken. “It has been such an incredible journey so far, and we are so lucky to have the Ocean Institute program here at CHOC for such a vulnerable population.”

To Hickman and the Ocean Institute team, the joy of the partnership comes through seeing the kids as future ocean stewards who deserve to learn, play and discover during their time at CHOC.

The program’s STEAM-based curriculum incorporates creative expression as an important part of the learning process.

“Our programs allow patients to be heard and show them that others outside the hospital care about their thoughts and feelings. The program content affords them a way to visually and creatively express themselves, making choices that support the unique artwork that they create. Discussing the ocean and the animals that live there provides a positive common ground from which to build confidence in a safe environment.”

The partnership has become so cherished on both sides that the Ocean Institute, thanks to a generous donor gift, is bringing the program to CHOC’s MHIC twice per month in 2020.

Learn more about the Ocean Institute and the Cherese Mari Laulhere Mental Health Inpatient Center.

Holidays in the CHOC Children’s Cherese Mari Laulhere Mental Health Inpatient Center

By Liz Hawkins, Volunteer in the CHOC Children’s Cherese Mari Laulhere Mental Health Inpatient Center

Patients in CHOC Children’s Cherese Mari Laulhere Mental Health Inpatient Center (MHIC) were treated to several surprises this holiday season.

Made possible by the MHIC Dream Team and volunteers, patients kicked off the holidays with a Thanksgiving lunch and celebration.

Thanksgiving lunch hosted by the MHIC Dream Team

Several Child Life Specialists braved the chilly autumn rain to set up a tent for Thanksgiving lunch. Patients received personalized invitations including up to 3 friends or family members to the special outdoor festivities. Tables were set with formal place settings, fall décor and activities such as decks of cards, coloring sheets, games and modeling clay to help keep the fun and conversation flowing. Other activities for patients and families included a photo booth, a picture frame decorating area and seasonal crafts.

Patients, guests and staff were served turkey and trimmings by members of CHOC’s Mental Health Advocacy Committee while music selected for the occasion by our MHIC Music Therapist played softly in the background. It was chilly and wet outside, but under the tent was warmth in the air that only a holiday can bring. Those patients that did not have family and friends able to join them at lunch were surrounded by staff that ate and played games alongside them to make their day special. That kind of compassion is extraordinary in mental healthcare, but it’s typical here at CHOC.

Warm winter surprises

After watching The Polar Express with MHIC staff, patients left cookies and milk out for Santa and went to bed early the night before Christmas. They awoke to a magical scene: holiday music played, a yule log crackled on the Seacrest Studio TV channel and presents hand-picked by Child Life Specialists awaited each patient.

Just like any child on Christmas morning, MHIC patients experienced the thrill and excitement of opening gifts chosen just for them, thanks to hard work from our Child Life team, MHIC staff, community donations and a little holiday magic.

Holiday celebrations like these bring cheer and smiles to patients and families, help to normalize the hospital experience, reduce stigma and set CHOC’s MHIC apart from other inpatient mental health centers. The MHIC Dream Team strives to make every day special for patients and families, but these holidays proved to be especially incredible.

It was the perfect way to kick off a new year in the MHIC, our second year in service to the community, where we celebrate the little things every day. We look forward to celebrating holidays in a big way in the MHIC in 2020.

Learn more about the Cherese Mari Laulhere Mental Health Inpatient Center at CHOC.

CHOC Children’s Receives Transformational Gift from Cherese Mari Laulhere Foundation to Expand Pediatric Mental Health Care

CHOC Children’s announced it has received a transformational gift from the Cherese Mari Laulhere Foundation to enhance and expand its pediatric mental health system of care. The announcement comes on the heels of the Conditions of Children in Orange County report, which highlights an alarming increase in the number of children hospitalized in the county for mental illnesses.

The gift from the Cherese Mari Laulhere Foundation will:

  • Endow CHOC’s mental health inpatient center. Opened in April 2018 for children ages 3 to 17, the center is the only inpatient facility in Orange County that offers specialized programs for kids younger than 12. The center will now be named the Cherese Mari Laulhere Mental Health Inpatient Center.
  • Establish the Cherese Mari Laulhere Young Child Clinic for children ages 3 to 8 who are experiencing behavioral and emotional challenges, mental health issues and school readiness challenges. Filling a gap in care, the clinic’s goal will be to help prevent long-term developmental problems for these young children.
  • Expand CHOC’s Intensive Outpatient Program, a mental health treatment program for high-schoolers with moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety, depression or other symptoms related to mental health conditions. The program will be expanded to middle school-aged children to help address the risk of suicidal ideation that can occur among pre-teens in grades sixth through ninth.
  • Advance trauma-informed care, including providing tools to pediatricians to help in identifying adverse childhood experiences, and connecting patients and families with resources. The support from the Cherese Mari Laulhere Foundation will enable CHOC to catalyze systems-level change in the treatment of pediatric trauma in the county to improve the long-term health and well-being of children.

“Although her life ended far too soon, Cherese left a lasting impact on people because of her passionate commitment to make a difference in the world. The gift from the foundation named in her honor will help advance her dream by bringing newfound peace into the lives of children with mental illnesses and their families,” says CHOC President and CEO Kimberly Chavalas Cripe. “I can’t imagine a more fitting way to remember such a bright, beautiful and giving spirit.”

Cherese Mari Laulhere

Established to honor Cherese Mari Laulhere, who died in a tragic accident when she was 21, the Cherese Mari Laulhere Foundation provides funds to charitable organizations that reflect Cherese’s dedication to enriching the lives of children. In 2017, the Cherese Mari Laulhere Foundation donated $5 million to endow the child life department at CHOC Children’s Hospital.  In recognition of the foundation’s generosity and to honor the memory of Cherese, the department was named The Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Department.

“Our donations are gifts from our daughter, who brought so much light and love into this world. As someone who advocated for the underserved, Cherese would be very proud of her role in supporting CHOC’s mental health efforts and helping change the trajectory of thousands of young lives,” says Cherese’s parents, Chris and Larry.

For information about Cherese and photos, visit www.cherese.org.