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WOW! Second Wings on Wheels vehicle hits the road

Since early 2013, a colorful vehicle painted with butterflies has brought free supportive therapy to individuals, families and communities throughout the St. Louis area. Called Wings on Wheels (WOW), this mobile program is offered by Wings, the BJC pediatric hospice and palliative care program. 

Now, thanks to generous donors, a second WOW vehicle is out on area streets, reaching even more people and communities in need of supportive services.

Wings has long provided clinical, emotional and spiritual support and services to children who have life-threatening or life-limiting illnesses, regardless of their ability to pay. The WOW program is an additional way that Wings fulfills its mission to provide care — not only to the children and families of Wings, but to entire communities affected by losses.

“The WOW vehicle and therapist visit patients and their families at their homes, as well as peers of the child in the pediatric hospice program,” says Barbara Westland, BJC Hospice director. “WOW also goes to children in larger community settings — schools, scout troops, churches, care centers and community events, for example — where grief support is desperately needed following a death or community tragedy. Wings on Wheels fills a void and fosters connection and compassion within our community.”

WOW is funded by the Friends of Wings organization, as well as corporate and individual sponsors. WOW offers expressive therapy for children, teens and young adults, as well as families and community groups, affected by illness or loss. Expressive therapy is the use of creative art forms such as visual art, writing and music to help individuals express feelings and ideas that words cannot.

The two WOW vehicles travel throughout the metro St. Louis area and surrounding counties in Illinois. Since the program began, WOW has visited 35 groups/organizations, nine churches, and made more than 73 school visits in 10 counties across more than 60 ZIP codes. The WOW teams are on the road about 250 days per year, covering an average of 13,000 miles each year and serving more than 11,000 people.

More about WOW in Missouri
WOW Missouri uses visual arts, movement, drama, music, writing, storytelling, scrapbooking and other creative activities to foster personal growth and community development.

Jennifer Lang, expressive therapy licensed counselor and primary WOW driver in Missouri, took on her role with WOW in February 2013 when the initial program was launched. 

As a young child, Lang had expressed herself through drawing and painting, and dreamed of becoming an artist. In college, she studied art history and took art classes. But she found she also had a passion for understanding the human psyche and family systems, so she pursued a master’s degree in counseling. 

Now, as a licensed professional counselor, she incorporates her creative art techniques into her therapeutic approach to help families in the communities BJC serves. Along with Lang, many other staff and volunteers help make the WOW program work. In addition, Diane Cogorno, expressive therapist, works with Spanish-speaking members of the community.

WOW Missouri has played a healing role in a variety of local events over the past several years, including the #Heal Ferguson Concert for Peace and Unity in September 2014. As they had done previously in Ferguson, WOW staff gave individuals and families at the concert a chance to write down messages of peace, hope, love and forgiveness on “hope flags.” 

The idea of such flags dates back more than 2,000 years to ancient Tibet, where the small pieces of cloth became known as “prayer flags,” based on the idea that the thoughts and blessings written down would be sent out to the world with each breeze.

“We gave individuals, families and the community the opportunity to create prayer/hope flags as a way of expressing thoughts, feelings, wishes, hopes and blessings,” says Lang. “At the Heal Ferguson Concert, the flags were strung as people created them. At a certain time during the concert, we marched the flags up to the front. The emcee said, ‘Look at all that hope!’ It was a beautiful moment.” 

More about WOW in Illinois
WOW Illinois, which just took to the road in May, is run by board-certified music therapist and primary driver Carolyn Lemen. Its focus is on music therapy and interventions such as therapeutic songwriting, lyric analysis/song discussion, group drumming or instrument play, and musical stories. Lemen says music therapy can be especially helpful in situations when it’s difficult to express feelings or share experiences through the use of words. 

As an undergraduate, Lemen studied classical voice and had planned to continue in vocal performance studies in graduate school. While she always enjoyed making music, she never felt entirely satisfied by performing and began looking into other options while completing her senior year. That’s when she discovered a master’s degree in music therapy program at Maryville University and went to graduate school there.

It was the perfect fit for her love of music and her desire to work with and help people. “I worked with residents in memory care as my first job and developed an interest in end-of-life care during my time there,” she says. “I started working in hospice after that and have been with BJC Hospice for three years now.”

Recently, Lemen and the WOW vehicles visited a dance school in Belleville, Ill., to help students affected by the death of a favorite dance teacher. “We collaborated with a local dance teacher and were able to combine music, art and dance all in one visit with the students at the dance studio,” Lemen says. “It was particularly memorable because the students shared a special dance they had choreographed in memory of their beloved dance teacher. It was very moving to witness.”

Lemen has also been involved in several camps and retreats to support bereaved families, including Stepping Stones, a camp for children age 12 and younger who have lost a loved one. She is also actively involved in fund-raisers to promote the WOW program, since the program is based entirely on donated funds.

“When I tell people about my job, their reaction is usually something like, ‘How do you do that every day?’ or ‘Don’t you just want to cry all the time?’” Lemen says. “While it’s true that this work can be emotionally taxing, it is so incredibly rewarding. We give a lot of ourselves in this type of work, but every day I feel that I get so much more than I give. 

“It is truly a privilege to be welcomed into people’s homes, families and lives and to share in some of their most intimate private moments,” she says. “And it’s gratifying to help bring something positive to help kids cope during a difficult time in their lives.”

Providing support, creating a shared experience

The overall goals of the WOW program include:

  • Support for individuals, families and groups who are impacted by life-limiting or terminal illness or who have experienced the death of someone significant to any cause (not only hospice-related deaths)
  • Creating a safe place to identify, express and process emotions and thoughts surrounding the illness or loss
  • Encouraging development of healthy coping skills and increasing feelings of self-control
  • Generating meaningful communication and encouraging a positive shared experience through verbal and non-verbal methods

Although named WOW Missouri and WOW Illinois, both vehicles travel to either state to provide support and meet community needs. The WOW team is grateful to the supporters and sponsors who made the second vehicle possible, including The Cornelsen Charitable Foundation, Simmons Hanly Conroy, Bommarito Automotive Group and Vinyl Images for the wrapping of the vehicle.

Want more information?
For more information, to volunteer or to contact Wings on Wheels in Missouri, call 314.953.1969 or email [email protected]. In Illinois, call 618.463.7779 or email [email protected].

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