Outside the Ronald McDonald House near the University of Minnesota, a group of children and teenagers shout out a resounding “yay” as they rush onto a colorful, compact bus adorned with bright butterflies, a starry sky and a black dog clutching a paintbrush in its jaws.
Seven kids are joined by four adult helpers. Mason jars full of crayons, colored pencils and markers are grabbed from customized shelves. A table comfortably seating six is hastily assembled from three modular desks.
The kids are aboard Ziggy’s Art Bus, a new effort from East Calhoun resident Gina Zaffarano to bring an accessible, mobile art experiences to children who are experiencing long-term and life-threatening illnesses and their families.
‘It gives them an opportunity just to be kids,” said Claire Ulbrich, an Uptown resident and the family services coordinator at the Ronald McDonald House.
Filling a void
Zaffarano is a hairdresser and business owner by trade; she owns Uptown Hair District and its sister shop, Edina Hair District.
A few years ago, she felt drawn to hospice work and began to train at the hospice volunteer program at North Memorial Hospital. After her training, she began volunteering at Crescent Cove, a hospice care center for children in Brooklyn Center.
“We never think about children and hospice in the same vein, we just don’t want to,” she said.
While volunteering at Crescent Cove, she saw a need for one of her passions — art. She spent about nine months thinking about that void, and what she could do to fill it.
In 2018 she formed a board and began raising money for a bus. The group raised nearly $100,000 in two fundraising events, largely from neighbors in Southwest and South Minneapolis, Zaffarano said.
“It was really remarkable,” she said.
The bus was named after Zaffarano’s Labrador-Australian Shepard mix, Ziggy, because the group concluded “everybody likes dogs.”
In the long term, Ziggy’s hopes to have a small fleet of buses capable of going directly to the homes of children with life-threatening and limiting illness throughout the Twin Cities. But in its initial months, the bus is mainly serving Crescent Cove and the Ronald McDonald House.
When a mutual friend told Lynnhurst resident Erica Marsden about Ziggy’s, she knew she wanted to get involved. An end-of-life midwife who has loved and practiced art her whole life, Marsden was a perfect fit for the program. Working with people who are going through such a real, human experience and helping them to make enduring art is a gift, she said.
“It’s just a safe space,” Marsden said.
The Ronald McDonald House on Oak Street provides housing primarily for young patients who are receiving care at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital and their siblings. Families come from all over the Midwest to receive care in the Twin Cities and must live at least 40 miles away to stay at the home. The Oak Street location has 48 family rooms and has an average stay of 150 nights, one of the longest average stays among Ronald McDonald homes worldwide, according to Ulbrich.
Ziggy’s began going to the Ronald McDonald House on March 12 and has been returning there each Tuesday.
“When they all came on you should have seen their faces,” Rachael Batty, a staffer at the Ronald McDonald House, said of the first visit.
Inside, the bus is bright and highly adaptable. Everything on board is mobile and modular, allowing Ziggy’s to adjust to the needs of anyone they serve.
“They have been so thoughtful in their planning and the design of the actual bus,” Ulbrich said.
The dog theme runs deep, too. Several art supplies are stored in a doghouse and tables are latched to the edge of the bus with collars.
The projects vary each week. On April 23, kids made customized name templates by drawing their own designs into block letters of their names. But if a project isn’t to their liking, it’s not a problem; volunteers are quick to let the kids just draw or sculpt with clay.
“I like how we get to do creative things,” said Brendon Howson, 14.
Brendon and his siblings, Ariana and Kyra, are from North Branch and have been staying at the Ronald McDonald House for about eight months.
One of the first projects Zaffarano put together for the kids at the house were “journey boxes.” The idea is to customize and decorate an old cigar box where the kids can store personal items.
“It’s like my world,” Ariana said of her journey box.
Activities like those offered at Ziggy’s help the residents of the Ronald McDonald house develop community bonds and keep their mind off the reasons that brought them to Minneapolis, Ulbrich said.
Facilitating those normal, fun experiences is the goal of Ziggy’s Art Bus, and the volunteers are enjoying it just as much as the children they serve.
“They teach me to live every time I’m in that bus with them,” Zaffarano said.