When Yale-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Conn., approached Robert Wilkins about starting a woodworking program there, some of Wilkins' friends were incredulous. "Woodworking in a hospital, are you kidding? People go to the hospital after they've been woodworking," they said. But the Welsh-born master cabinetmaker persisted and has built a program with tools and 2x4s that you wouldn't expect.
The people Wilkins works with are part of what make him unique: Many are children living with serious or life-threatening illnesses. Woody, as the kids call him, designs projects and workbooks the children can work on while sitting or lying in a hospital bed. He provides them with a kit of pre-cut sanded pieces, the workbook, and a set of tools. Projects range from racecars to teddy bear boxes to rocket ships to lap desks.
The program uses woodworking skills not only to build beautiful things, but the building process also helps the kids build self-esteem and provides a good learning experience. Wilkins calls this "creative empowerment." He reports with a gleam in his eye that the kids overcome challenges as they figure out how to build their project, and something ignites inside them: self-worth, creative energy, and pride.
Wilkins is careful to point out that he doesn't work with sick kids; he works with healthy kids whose bodies are sick. Putting tools in their hands empowers them, he says, and despite how sick they are, it makes them feel good.