The Joy Foundation
St. Louis, Missouri
"My mother wasn’t an artist, but she lived life as a creative act," says Kathy Feldt. "Ordinary moments became adventures." So when Joy Feldt was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2001, she approached her illness with the same spirit. "She had something she called a ‘healequin’ doll, like a mannequin," recalls Kathy, "and she would use it to signal days when she was having an especially hard time."
When her mother died, Kathy felt called to share her mother’s gift with other cancer patients. "My mother lived creatively, and if we can’t always show people how to do that, we can give them the creative tools that art provides." Kathy started The Joy Foundation in St. Louis in 2001, believing that healing through the arts helps battle cancer.
The foundation’s Lids for Laughter, then, is a workshop program that brings the studio experience to cancer patients, where they can make hats, hoods, and headwear of all sorts. Expressive, often exuberant, such hats—traditionally a negative sign of cancer—suggest how a painful experience can morph into an inventive, even inspirational, act. One 8-year-old patient wrote: Thank you for the cool crown activity. It was the only time today I wasn’t thinking about being sick. I feel like a princess wearing my crown!
If Lids for Laughter is a patient-care tool, Kathy’s Lids for Life program, established a year later, reaches out to people in underserved communities who may feel shut out of the health-care system. Drawing people together with similar creative hat-making activities, the program then introduces them to such services as free mammograms and prostate screening. Another program, Jazz for Joy, brings live music to treatment centers—soothing jazz concerts, for example—for patients as they undergo their chemotherapy treatments. Another of the foundation’s endeavors—St. Louis Community Healing Arts—connects people with cancer and their families to community arts organizations—museums, theaters, dance companies, and concert halls—that donate tickets. Whether it’s two tickets or 200—to the opera or the Harlem Globetrotters—the idea, Kathy says, is that "at a time when people can be overwhelmed with grief or fear, art can transport them into something life-affirming."
Kathy’s conviction that art and healing are compatriots is served by her business background in health-care marketing. And while she acknowledges the value of these baseline skills in navigating the health-care system, she also admits that her mother’s diagnosis "changed everything." As a social entrepreneur, she recognizes that dedication often has its roots in personal experience.
If her mother’s life—and death—inspired her foundation, Kathy knows today that she "also draws on what I am seeing in the families we serve." It is this nurturing cycle of life that may best express the creative spirit of her work. "I have a 9-year old daughter, and I want her to understand that we are given gifts in life and it is incumbent upon us to share these with our communities," she says. "My mother taught me that."