BELEN — With a big smile, sixth-grade School of Dreams Academy student, Mackenzie T., laid her paintings across the table and pointed to her favorite, a colorful self portrait inspired by the style of Pablo Picasso.
Through CoachArt, Mackenzie has created more than a dozen paintings inspired by different artists or famous artistic styles throughout history.
“My favorite part was making a tree out of paint,” Mackenzie said with a giggle. “So we splashed paint everywhere.”
CoachArt is a non-profit organization designed to teach children with serious or chronic illness new skills through online classes taught entirely by volunteers.
Angela Thompson, her grandmother, first signed Mackenzie up for the program last year after hearing about it through the principal at Mimbres School, a school designed for patients at the University of New Mexico Hospital.
Mackenzie was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury following a serious car accident eight years ago in Alabama, which took the life of her mother.
“Mackenzie got the brunt of the accident because her seat belt didn’t work,” Thompson said. “She had a depressed skull fracture and brain damage … We had to fly out there and deal with all that. I got to fly back home because they (Mackenzie’s two younger brothers) were OK.”
The two boys were also in the accident — one was 4 months old and the other 16 months old at the time.
“She had to stay there (in Alabama) for about a month and a half,” Thompson said. “Then they flew her on a medical flight back to UNM. So, it’s been almost eight years in April. She’s come a long way.”
Today, Mackenzie still has difficulty using her left hand as well as the left side of her body, but said the painting classes with CoachArt have helped since she needed to learn how to hold the canvas with one hand and paint with the other.
“It was nice to see her grow and come out of her shell the longer we spent time together,” said Mackenzie’s art instructor, Suhana Thakrar. “She was kind of shy at first and, after a while, she started talking and getting more excited about lessons, which I found really rewarding. It brightened up my day every time I got to talk with her and paint with her.”
In addition to the painting classes, Mackenzie and her brothers also took classes on cooking and learning about the digestive system. Each class contained interactive activities to keep the children engaged, such as cooking meals, drawing the digestive system on a T-shirt or making a human spine out of egg cartons.
“We cooked different stuff every single week that we had never tried,” Mackenzie said, adding she can’t remember the name of her favorite meal they cooked, but it was a soup with a kind of fruit in it.
During the class on the digestive system, which was taught by a medical doctor, Mackenzie enjoyed learning facts about the human body, like how your spine is done growing at 5 years old.
“Through painting, she was exposed to different types of painters and how they painted, so they would do an example of their work. We would do a little bit of history on it,” Mackenzie’s grandma said. “… I don’t cook with the kids. I’m grandma. It was nice because I wanted to cut the food for them and one of the teachers was all, ‘No, the kids need to do it.’”
In recent months, Mackenzie had to take a step back from participating in CoachArt classes as she transitioned to going to school full-time. She began school at School of Dreams Academy in October.
“This is the first time she’s been in a public school full-time,” Thompson said. “Even at UNM Hospital, she was only going two days a week in person, so we spent a lot more time at home. Now that she is going five days a week, it’s tough. She’s had to transition a lot.”
Her brothers currently attend school in Belen, but also will be transitioning to SODA during the next school year.
Mackenzie said in her few months at SODA, her favorite classes have been Earth and Space, as well as math. She said the transition has become easier now that she has begun to make friends.