Department Spotlight: Child Life

By: Alana Ridge

March 27, 2023

The Child Life department at Renown Health pose for a photo in the kids' playroom.

March is National Child Life Month. Join us in recognizing our Child Life team at Renown Health! 

The hospital environment can be a daunting and confusing place for a child. Whether they are admitted to the hospital themselves or have a family member who is currently undergoing treatment, they undoubtedly bring along a lot of overwhelming questions and concerns. 

No one would be better to guide them through the process than the Child Life department at Renown Health. Our devoted Child Life Specialists and Child Life Assistants dedicate themselves to helping our youngest patients and children of relatives in the hospital cope with their anxieties and fears. With the smiling faces of the Child Life team on their side, children at Renown have a sense of solace while they are in the hospital with a team to cheer them on every step of the way. 

Offering a Hand to Hold 

From the first moment of a child’s visit to Renown, they are never alone. The Child Life team, which is made up of three specialists and two assistants, is here to provide a helping hand throughout the entire hospital process, explaining each test, procedure and process every step of the way and creating the best possible plan for each patient – all while fostering and maintaining a safe and supportive environment. 

“We are specifically trained to help patients and families throughout their healthcare experiences,” said Amanda Cleary, MS, CCLS, Child Life Specialist. “This looks different for every family. We are trained to tailor our services to meet individual family and cultural needs based on our assessment.” 

“It does not take long for a Child Life Specialist to create a safe relationship with a pediatric patient,” added Angie McEvers, CCLS, CFLE, Child Life Specialist. “The Child Life department can help any care team do their job by redirecting a child’s focus and distracting them from painful interventions, and this is a win-win for both the patient and the care team.” 

This team’s primary goal is to make talking to doctors and undergoing tests a little less intimidating for our youngest patients. Interaction is a crucial part of a child’s healthcare journey. Our Child Life Specialists are masters at procedure preparation, surgery preparation, trauma support and diagnosis education while meeting each child where they are at developmentally. 

“A day in the life of a Child Life Specialist is never the same, and every child is different,” said Jennifer Nunzir, CCLS, Child Life Specialist. “To make sure patient care is possible, I make sure I am here mentally for the patients and families. I am ready with a smile to greet them and try to make them comfortable from the start. We are always present to support a patient and family with a new diagnosis, talk to children when there has been a tragic accident, make memories for families and giving children a distraction from tests and procedures.” 

“One of the biggest benefits to our job is our ability to provide emotional support and communicate with families in a way that makes them feel seen and heard,” added Amanda Cleary. “We listen to the family’s past medical experiences and work on building rapport by building those connections. When you get a child to open up, you see who they are as an individual, and we build from there.” 

The efforts of the Child Life team go beyond helping children with coping skills. They also jump in with activities to keep kids of all ages engaged – from arts and crafts to pet therapy. 

“Bringing children smiles through play and giving them fun things to do – whether it’s watching a movie, playing a game, doing an art project, going for a wagon ride or taking them to the Children’s Healing Garden – makes me feel I am making a difference,” said Jennifer Nunzir. “If I can get the child and family to at least smile or laugh, I feel I have already eased some fear and anxiety. It truly is the best feeling to get them smiling and laughing.” 

“Through play, conversation, distraction or relaxation techniques, patients cope better, and families are calmer,” added Angie McEvers. 

Teaching Every Step of the Way 

Education is a crucial aspect in this department. Each Child Life team member works closely with their patient’s care teams to break down “doctor speak” with age-appropriate explanations.  

“Children come into the hospital for all sorts of reasons, from a broken bone to cancer; our background in child development and psychology helps us collaborate with the patients’ providers and explaining what each part of the care journey is depending on a child’s developmental level,” said Amanda Cleary. “For example, we can explain what a brain tumor is with playdough and help a child with a new diabetes diagnosis understand what it means to balance sugars using play food. It's all about providing family-centered support so that they feel more in control. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen parents’ eyes light up when the kids play. They are all coping, learning and growing together.” 

To Help with the Happy and the Sad 

When healthcare journeys don’t go as planned, support from care teams is crucial for families facing grief or loss. The Child Life Specialists are one of the first on the scene to provide support for children and their families, providing education on how to talk to children about death and helping families preserve the memories of their loved ones for years to come. 

“One of the most difficult things we do is provide bereavement support,” said Angie McEvers. “Not only do we provide support for families of pediatric patients but also adult patients who have children. Our team takes the time to help families with memory making with handprints, journals, books, the list goes on. No one should have to go through this process alone, and we make sure that doesn’t happen.” 

Above all else, the Child Life team are here, first and foremost, for the patients and their families. They are the drive that keeps them going – and helps them reinvigorate that passion for their work every day. 

“I have met some of the most amazing children and families, and they definitely are what keep me here at Renown,” said Jennifer Nunzir. 

The Road to Child Life 

The journey to becoming a Child Life Specialist looks different for every team member, and many of them discovered the field while pursuing careers in other healthcare areas. Beyond their passion for children and families – and their Certified Child Life Specialist credential – our Child Life team members are also highly educated in the fields of human development, nursing and psychology, knowledge that benefits them greatly in their career. 

Amanda Cleary had the unique experience of pursuing a Child Life career at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles before she arrived at Renown last year, implementing her knowledge from her bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies into a clinical child life internship and a robust career in Child Life. 

“While at Penn State, I learned about the Child Life career path through the Children’s Miracle Network Dance Marathon,” said Amanda. “I knew that this was the path I wanted to take. I did a 600-hour internship, and from there I was hired at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, where I stayed for 11 years. As a lifelong learner, I knew I wanted to pursue more – so I achieved my master’s degree online in child life leadership and advocacy at the Erickson Institute in Chicago, and what I learned in that program continues to serve me well in my career at Renown.” 

Other Child Life Specialists, like Angie McEvers and Jennifer Nunzir, had already been with Renown for several years in other departments and built up a wealth of healthcare knowledge before discovering their passion for the mission of Renown’s Child Life program. 

“I have been here for 23 years; I always knew I wanted to work with children in the hospital because I love kids, and although I originally wanted to be a nurse, I realized that I actually wanted to be on the other side of helping,” said Jennifer. “At the time, I didn’t know there was a job like the Child Life Specialist out there, and I feel so lucky to have found this career. Over the years, as Reno has grown, so has our program, which is very exciting. I knew Renown would be the place where I could grow as well." 

“This year is my 24th year with Renown,” added Angie. “Before I worked here, I was an Advanced EMT/Firefighter while pursuing my nursing degree. In working with the medical team from Children's Hospital of Oakland in pediatric hematology/oncology, I was able to see first-hand the benefit of Child Life. I was driven to finish my human development degree and passed my certification testing, and ever since then, I’ve been with Pediatrics, PICU and the Children’s ER.”  

We could not have said it better ourselves – this is a field that is constantly evolving and progressing, and while not everyone is familiar with it, our Child Life Specialists are ready to change that narrative. 

“There is a lot of opportunity here to continue to grow the Child Life program,” said Amanda. “Not all hospitals have a Child Life program, but we are lucky that Renown does. Any aspiring Child Life Specialist should consider coming here, as it has been a great experience. It is a familial feeling here, and I definitely feel like I am in the right place.” 

There is Strength in Numbers 

It takes a village to serve the emotional needs of the many children and families that walk through the doors of Renown Children’s Hospital, and our Child Life Specialists are considered some of the key leaders of that village.  

The outpouring of support for our Child Life program is astonishing. Not only have our patients and employees made generous donations, but members of the greater Reno-Sparks community are always there ensure kids in the hospital can be kids. The Nevada Wolf Pack, SCHEELS, Great Reno Balloon Race and Atlantis Casino are just a few of the many generous organizations that have donated both toys and time to our youngest patients. 

To support any child dealing with a serious illness, especially cancer, Beads of Courage steps in to help children “visually record, tell and own their stories of courage” using beads as a symbol. Representatives from Beads of Courage volunteer their time to help our youngest patients keep track of their valiant fight against their illness, adding a bead to their necklaces after every step in their care journey. 

“We rely on our generous community and donations that come in, and we see a lot during the holiday season – we definitely can benefit from this year-round,” said Amanda. 

The donations allow the Child Life team to expand their play, coping and distraction opportunities for patients and families, allowing them to reach more children within their small, mighty and growing team of five.  

“Our goal as a team is to work with as many pediatric patients and children of relatives seeking treatment as possible, so the opportunity to grow our team would be awesome,” said Amanda. 

And grow they will! The team recently welcomed two dedicated Child Life Assistants, Marissa Arriaga and Sydnee Patterson, during Child Life Month. These team members work alongside the Child Life Specialists to help provide opportunities for developmental play, both in the playroom and at the bedside. Marissa and Sydnee ensure that the kids can still be kids, even while they are in the hospital. 

Additionally, the Child Life department is currently hiring more Child Life Specialists. If this line of work speaks to you or someone you care about, they are strongly encouraged to apply, because in the end: 

"We do it all for the kids,” closes Jennifer Nunzir. 

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