Holistic childcare: CEHHS student discovers career path that focuses on wellness, compassion for families

October 24, 2016

Jenifer Pifer
Listening to stories around a campfire ring. Assembling s’mores. Cheering for each other to catch pretend fish in a small pool.

A group of children were having a fun camping experience—leaving behind the reality that they were in the lobby of a hospital’s intensive care floor.

Jenifer Pifer, a preschool teacher of 17 years, said seeing this transformation—and how it affected her young daughter, Lanie, and the friend from school Lanie was visiting in the hospital—changed her life.

“They took something that can be a scary experience and made a creative safe space for the children. The kids were just focused on being kids. That’s so important—whether in a classroom or the hospital. But doing it at a hospital is on a different level,” Pifer said. “The staff took an extremely challenging time in these families’ lives and brought in art, creative and play elements. It was just amazing to see.”

When she asked who put the activities together for the children, Pifer learned about child life specialists, pediatric healthcare professionals who work with children and families in hospitals and other settings to help them cope with the challenges of hospitalization, illness and disability.

In addition to putting on special events for kids, these specialists do things like therapeutic play to help minimize fear and ease children’s anxieties, encourage understanding about medical procedures by showing the procedure with dolls or other teaching tools, and providing support services for parents and siblings.

“I had never heard of a child life specialist before. And then, just months after that, I found out that UM-Dearborn was starting a child life specialist program. If you had told me that I’d be back in college—a working mom who has been out of school for years—I wouldn’t have believed it. But there I was, signing up,” said Pifer, who has been a UM-Dearborn student since the program began last fall. “And I’m so glad that I’ve had this opportunity.”

The 120-credit program includes coursework in health, education, and children and family life. Students gain direct training in the field through a clinical experience under the supervision of a certified child life specialist.

Pifer said at times it’s difficult finding a work/school/home balance—but she keeps her focus on what’s important: the kids she wants to help and her daughter, Lanie, age 10.

“I witnessed the affect the child life specialists had on my daughter and her friend. After seeing that, I felt a conviction. I’ve really enjoyed teaching preschool, but I now know what I want to do when I grow up,” said Pifer, with a laugh. “And Lanie has been so supportive. She even helps bring awareness to childhood illnesses and issues. She has such a big heart.”

Since starting the child life specialist program, Pifer founded the Child Life Student Association, volunteered at Mott Children’s Hospital, and has met people whose lives have been positively impacted by the field.

“I was wearing a UM-Dearborn sweatshirt and a woman came up to me and asked me what I was majoring in. When I told her child life specialist, she shared with me how much they helped her family after her daughter was diagnosed with cancer,” she said.

“She said the child life specialists helped her family feel a sense of normal among all of the confusion and emotional chaos. She said she couldn’t thank them enough. It’s stories like hers that tell me that I’m on the right path.”

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