Staying cooped up anywhere can be difficult for anyone, but facing the four walls of a hospital room 24/7 can be especially tough -- draining even.
For nearly 20 years, Only Make Believe has brought happiness to thousands of children in hospitals and care facilities across the DC area through live interactive theater. To date, approximately 45,000 children have been impacted by OMB’s services, and that number continues to grow each year.
Because OMB knows that “freeing a child’s imagination is a valuable part of the healing process,” the organization works with a team of professional actors to provide interactive theater for sick children using nothing by a backdrop, along with a supply of props, costumes and imagination, of course.
What happens next is quite magical to say the least.
By the end of the show, the same children who were having the worst day imaginable and didn’t intend on participating are dancing, laughing and having fun.
Professional actor Chris Wilson, who joined OMB four years ago, calls days like these a job well done.
“Only Make Believe allows theater to become a truly immersive experience. The actors transform the space, interact with the audience, and adjust the show to the needs of each group of children,” Wilson said. “I am a firm believer that the performing arts have the ability to allow children to think and grasp concepts in a different way.”
Founded by Dena Hammerstein, OMB honors the legacy of her late husband James “for his dedication to the theater and her passionate love for children in need.” But, as soon as trips to the theater proved to be too much for many of the children, that’s when the idea of brining the magic of theater directly to them emerged.
“The majority of the children we serve do not have normal childhoods and suffer from chronic diseases and physical, emotional and intellectual disabilities,” said OMB Regional Director Tamela Aldridge. “Our performances are a rare opportunity for children to express themselves beyond the restrictions of their illness and experience hope, humor and healing.”
According to the OMB website, the actors spend six consecutive weeks and put on six different shows at each hospital, so the kids can get to know the actors and vice versa.
For the finale, OMB likes to flip the script, pun intended, by giving the children an opportunity to step into the spotlight and recreate all the past shows they’ve seen.
“We are portable, customizable and relatable,” Wilson said. “Our job is to cater to each child we serve. We have seen the impact our shows can have, and want to share this with the greater DC community.”
To bring the children some much-needed comfort, the props and costumes stay at the hospital long after those six weeks are over. Even better, all of OMB’s performances are free thanks to its generous supporters. Throughout the year, the nonprofit hosts several fundraising events, including 5k runs and cocktail parties.
Hours of work go into being able to properly execute each show and OMB’s dedicated volunteers play a crucial role by helping to set up shows and creating the costumes that are used in each performance.
Elementary school counselor Afton Cappello has been a volunteer at the organization since last summer. “I was drawn to OMB because I did theater in high school, and I love that the organization uses plays as a way to bring joy and comfort to kids who are going through something tough,” she said. “I love knowing that one of the hats I made will be given to a child and will make him or her so excited and bring them some happiness.”
OMB has garnered both local and national attention from many since bursting onto the scene in 1999 with a long list of accomplishments to its name. In addition to participating in the Children’s National Medical Center annual holiday party with First Lady Michelle Obama, OMB has received grant awards from the DC Commission of the Arts & Humanities, as well as several Ronald McDonald House Charities around the DC area.
Much of OMB’s success has to do with its longstanding partnerships with several local businesses and corporations, including Avenue Capital Group, Bloomberg and Disney, who make in-kind donations and co-facilitate arts events and smaller fundraisers.
While OMB serves as an escape for many children facing difficult times, Aldridge pointed out that the therapeutic power of theater also gives them the tools to bolster their self-confidence and outlook on their future.
“Only Make Believe taps into every child’s need to play. Often, children face the circumstances where they must deal with very adult issues,” Wilson added. “Our goal is make them forget these issues, if only for one hour, and allow themselves to be a kid. Our hope is that they keep this feeling with them and use it when they have the need.”