BRIAN NAYLOR, host:
The streets of New York City provide a stage for performers to hock their talents for money. They put out a hat or leave open a guitar case and hope for the best. But at a hospital in Brooklyn, it's not spare change artists perform for, it's health care. From member station WFUV, George Bodarky reports.
Ms. BETSY KELLEHER: I usually make eyes out of buttons and things.
GEORGE BODARKY reporting:
Pretend you're blindfolded, walking the halls of a hospital. What's going on? It's not a new type of plastic surgery. In a playroom in the pediatric unit of Brooklyn's Woodhull Medical Center, visual artist Betsy Kelleher is teaching a small group of children in hospital gowns how to make sock puppets.
Ms. KELLEHER: I'm going to cut a little oval--a little red oval.
BODARKY: It's part of a pilot program at the public hospital called Artist Access. For each hour she spends showing kids how to bring hosiery to life, Kelleher earns credits for health care. An hour of work allows an artist to bank 40 bucks toward future medical needs. Kelleher says since working in Lower Manhattan after 9/11, her asthma has become more problematic, so she jumped at the chance to take part in the arts exchange program.
Ms. KELLEHER: My income goes up and down. And I do exhibit and I do sell, but it's not always the most fruitful times. And so when things are at a lull, it gets hard to pay doctors for everything you need.
BODARKY: Kelleher is the first artist to bring her skills to Woodhull, but the hospital's medical director and the man behind Artist Access, Dr. Edward Fishkin, says there are many acts to follow. He says the hospital gets about 10 calls a day from interested artists.
Dr. EDWARD FISHKIN (Medical Director, Woodhull Medical Center): Once the proposals were left to the artists, they came up with wonderful, very creative ideas.
BODARKY: Visual artist Palema Cassells(ph) heard about the Artist Access program through e-mails from fellow artists. Cassells now has health insurance, but can relate to artists without coverage.
Ms. PALEMA CASSELLS: When I was pregnant, I didn't have any insurance. I wasn't working. I was enrolled in a program that they have for pregnant women, and I was on Medicaid, but that expired six weeks after I gave birth.
BODARKY: Even though she doesn't need the health-care credits, Cassells is still lending her talents to Woodhull. She's creating a mural of smiling faces for the pediatric unit. If Cassells is looking for inspiration for her mural, she might want to peek in on visual artist Betsy Kelleher's sock puppet session.
Ms. KELLEHER: How could we make a nose? What about all these things in here? Do you see anything you might be able to make a nose out of?
BODARKY: Despite their ailments, the children are smiling. Fourteen-year-old Prestina Cook was taken to the hospital with pains in her side. She's creating a monkey out of a brown sock.
PRESTINA COOK: You don't have to really think about what the doctors have to do. I've been worried because they say I might have to have surgery, so I'm scared. So now it's taking my attention for the puppets.
BODARKY: If the Artist Access program continues to do well in previews, officials hope to expand it to all of New York City's public hospitals. For NPR News, I'm George Bodarky in New York.
NAYLOR: It's 22 minutes before the hour.
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