Child Life: Making a Difference One Smile at a Time

Kelli Huggins and sick children enjoying a fun-filled week at Camp Smile-a-Mile

Helping those who need it most

It takes a special heart to want to work with families and children in their darkest days, and Auburn University students are studying to do just that as Child Life specialists.

The Child Life concentration in the College of Human Sciences prepares students with the tools they need to work with vulnerable children in need of comfort and normalization.

Specialists support children affected by an illness, a disability, an experience with tragedy or violence, the death of a loved one or low socio-economic class. No matter the severity of the situation, specialists are there to serve.

A Servant’s Heart

Amanda Butler, an Auburn graduate and the director of Auburn University’s Child Life program, said the most important qualities a Child Life Specialist should have are flexibility and people skills.

“I never know what my day is going to look like,” Butler said. “The ability to assess a room quickly, read people and use empathy skills to respond is what flexibility looks like in the child life world.

People skills are important, and to some degree, those can’t be taught; it’s innate. Being able to meet with somebody who’s having the most stressful day of their life and be able to talk in a way that they can hear you and connect with you, that is a difficult thing to teach.”

Child Life is as much a hospital staff support function as it is a child support function, according to Butler.

“Ideally, when Child Life is used well, it should feel mandatory for the staff to do their job,” she said. “We’re usually very short-staffed in hospitals and find ourselves wearing many hats and being anywhere anyone needs us.”

A Lifelong learning experience

Butler has transformed the program during her five years at Auburn by connecting the solid theoretical curriculum taught in the classroom with real-life experience. She assists students in finding practicums and internships and encourages them to shift their perspectives.

“My goal is to make our students have a diverse experience so that they can work with any child that hasn’t had that perfect, picturesque lifestyle,” Butler said. “The main goal of child life is changing the perspective of ‘what my life is like is a reflection of what everyone else’s life has been.'”

Kelli Huggins is a senior in the Child Life program and intern at Children’s of Alabama. The memories she has of working with her patients have made her outlook on life “sweeter,” she said.

“Every patient I meet helps put my life and my ‘trials’ in perspective,” Huggins said. “One of my favorite lessons that a nine-year-old girl taught me is to be proud of who you are. It doesn’t matter what you look like as long as you own it. She only has one leg and was diagnosed with cancer. But, she believes in living every day to the fullest and dancing, lots of dancing.”

A Meaningful Career

Butler and Huggins said Child Life “checked so many boxes” for them. It fuses their interests in the medical field, child development and tender, loving care.

“I can make even just one child smile or laugh, I can say I did my job,” Huggins said. “There hasn’t been a day when I’ve doubted my decision to choose this career.”

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