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Adding a Splash of Color – and a Message of Hope – to the Walls of Shepherd Center

Thanks to a generous donor, Shepherd Center staff and patients created a large mural in the Livingston Gym dedicated to sharing a message of hope.

Anyone who uses the track in Shepherd Center's Livingston Gym now has something bright and cheerful to look at as a new mural transforms the space. Spearheaded by patients in Shepherd’s adolescent program, the mural is more than 100 feet long and flows through all aspects of the space, including the pillars and a portion of the ceiling.

The mural is the brainchild of Shepherd Center Arts Specialist Alexandra Chukabarah, MS, who was looking for a project to do with patients in the adolescent program.

“I thought a mural would be a nice way to engage more people and promote a sense of community,” Chukabarah says, “and a way to add color and vibrancy to aspace everyone uses.”

Chukabarah solicited the help of Minna Hong, an artist and former peer support manager at Shepherd Center. Hong was a patient at Shepherd Center in 1999 after sustaining a spinal cord injury in a car accident. The two spent several “Fun Friday” sessions with the adolescents from both the Spinal Cord Injury and Brain Injury RehabilitationPrograms – as they brainstormed ideas of their vision for the wall.

The teenagers wanted every level of injury represented in the mural so that all patients could feel a connection. They also came up with a list of words they wanted to convey in the painting, such as hope, courage, family, sports, friends, school, and love. Under the guidance of Chukabarah and Hong, the group settled on the theme of birds flying in different stages. It is inspired by the poem “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers” by Emily Dickinson.

“The main design is a series of origami birds taking form and taking flight along the wall,” Chukabarah explains. “This design captures the idea of rebuilding one’s life and giving form to something new – as seen in the folding of origami – and also in our patients’ unique journeys at Shepherd Center. It also conveys the message we want to capture of the hope that lives at Shepherd.”

For the young people creating the mural, it was more than an art project. It was a way for them to share their hope for the future and leave their mark on Shepherd Center long after leaving the hospital.

“Their words and their vision come through in the mural,” Hong says. “Giving them the space to decide what they wanted to see and what they wanted to share was empowering. They wanted future patients to feel inspired.”

While the adolescents took the lead in painting the mural, Chukabarah arranged it so that other groups of patients, as well as family members and staff, had an opportunity to contribute to the project. Lewis Haney, who works in Shepherd Center’s engineering department, volunteered to prepare the walls before Chukabarah and Hong outlined the shapes of the origami birds with painter’s tape so that those painting could just fill in the shapes. The design was intentionally accessible so that all patients could participate, including those painting with a mouth stick. 

The mural is funded by a $2,500 grant from a generous donor and FoundationTrustee, Sherry Abney, and was completed in May. 

Although this mural is a special project, Chukabarah regularly offers Shepherd Center patients ways to express their creativity through painting, drawing, pottery, photography, and other mediums as part of the hospital’s art therapy program.

“There is so much healing power in art,” Chukabarah says. “It’s a form of expressing ourselves and can often hold so much more meaning than words.”

Hong, who worked at Shepherd Center for 18 years until her retirement in 2019, agrees.

“Art has been so therapeutic to me,” she says. “It helps me focus and gives me a sense of calm. I hope this project does the same for others. I was honored they asked me to come back and be a part of it.”

Written by Sara Baxter

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.