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In Utah, a travelling troupe of Disney characters reassures children

In Utah, a travelling troupe of Disney characters reassures children

By Krista Allen
Special to the Times


It was an opportunity to bring Disneyland to Naatsis’áán, said Sahar Khadjenoury, who danced all through the Teddy Bear Clinic in a Mickey Mouse costume outside Navajo Mountain Community Health Center on Friday afternoon.

“I absolutely loved the reaction we got from children,” said Khadjenoury, the interim youth coordinator for Utah Navajo Health System’s Iiná Bihoo’aah Program. “(The coronavirus) can be a scary time and to be quarantined during a pandemic can be kind of lonely. But the Teddy Bear Clinic is an opportunity to bring Disneyland to your backdoor.”

UNHS hosts a Teddy Bear Clinic every year for children in Utah Navajo. UNHS has five clinic sites: Blanding Family Practice, Montezuma Creek Community Health Center, Monument Valley Community Health Center, San Juan Family Dental, and Navajo Mountain. The Teddy Bear Clinic does a whistle-stop tour of the clinics in late July and throughout August. Each stop, once a weekend, lasts less than two hours.

The goal is to dispel some of the fears that children face when they have to go to the clinic or to the hospital. In recent years, Utah Navajo children got to stream through the clinics’ hallways and be inside an actual patient room to experience and to see some common procedures – such as having a cast put on, reading blood pressure, measuring a heart rate, and going through an X-ray – on a stuffed animal.

It does look like play, but the UNHS staff said children learn while they interact with the medical staff and see the equipment they use. However, the annual Teddy Bear Clinic inside the real clinics isn’t possible this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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But that didn’t stop UNHS from organizing the whistle-stop tour. UNHS’s Teddy Bear Clinic team on Friday, Aug. 7, set up tents outside the Navajo Mountain clinic for a drive-through event where families with children received a goodie bag full of coloring books, crayons, small toys and games, bar soaps to promote handwashing, a toothbrush with toothpaste, dental floss, a book, stress balls, a small snack, a Disney ear headband, and an event Disney T-shirt.

“We decided to continue with the Teddy Bear Clinic because we understand how COVID-19 has impacted the Navajo Nation and how children are mostly staying inside,” said Yikanee Sampson, the clinic manager for MCCHC who organized the event. “And we’re really encouraging them to stay home. I’m sure most families are keeping their children at home.

“But I think they’re ready to come out and start to feel the emotional and mental attachment that they need,” she said. “We still make sure we’re social distancing and being safe as we can to prevent COVID spread to any of our patients and to our families.”

Sampson said the first Teddy Bear Clinic took place July 31 at the San Juan Family Dental clinic in Monticello, Utah, where she and her coworkers saw children waving from vehicles and watching the people in Disney mascot costumes dance and wave with excitement.

The staff enjoyed “seeing the faces pop out from behind tinted truck windows and you see little hands and fingers kind of wiggle through the window,” Khadjenoury said. “It’s so precious because they’re getting to see characters that they’re familiar with, that they like to watch in movies or on TV. And we’re trying our best to bring them to life.”

Sampson said the Disney characters brought joy to the children and even to adults dealing with coronavirus anxiety. “Even for us as health care workers, we’re just stressed out about what’s happening and we’re doing our best to keep our spirits up positive,” Sampson said. “And so, when we saw the children just waving out the windows – really excited for the people that are in the costumes but looking to see what we’re putting in the (goodie bags),” the cheering-up went both ways.

“The health care workers (wore) their Minnie Mouse-ear headbands. The children are happy and that makes us really happy to see them,” she said. “Their spirits are just sparking our interest and making us motivated to do what we’re doing out there. It’s really motivating.”

UNHS medical staff said some children are making sense of the coronavirus. But how to tell the story of the pandemic depends on children’s ages. And parents should avoid letting their own anxiety show when communicating with children regarding the national emergency.

Some children are even more strict about the rules than their parents, said Sampson, who has a 4-year-old son. “Some say, ‘The coronavirus is out there. The coronavirus is out there. Don’t go!’ They’re the ones who are actually more encouraging to the adults to stay home,” she said. “‘No, we can’t go visit grandma. The coronavirus is out there. We can’t give her the virus. We have to be careful. We have to be safe.’”

The next Teddy Bear Clinic events are in Blanding on Aug. 21, and in Montezuma Creek on Aug. 28. All events are scheduled from 1 to 4 p.m.


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