DURHAM — Some students, given a day in charge of their schools, might indulge their peers’ cravings for sugary treats or moments of leisure.
But Emma Astrike-Davis, then a sixth-grader, instead provided each classroom at Montessori Community School with two blank canvases and the task of filling them with art to adorn the rooms of the dying.
That effort spawned the nonprofit Art for Hospice, which has distributed more than 1,500 works of student art to hospice centers, nursing homes and VA hospitals during the past five years.
“Part of me wanted to have cookies for lunch, or extra recess, or no homework,” says Astrike-Davis, whose parents bought her the “head of school for a day” privilege at a fundraising auction. “But I also wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to get my whole school to do something together.”
Now a rising senior, Astrike-Davis, 17, is an all-state runner, a leader in several student organizations, a local lifeguard – and president of the nonprofit she started in middle school.
She’s also one of just five high-school students nationwide who recently received a Prudential Community Spirit Award for their volunteer work. The award, which is also given to five middle school students, is culled from nearly 30,000 applicants and comes with a $5,000 cash prize.
“It’s just remarkable to see a young person so dedicated,” says Mike Blanchard, who as vice president of development at Hospice of Wake County has worked with Astrike-Davis to match the student art with patients.
Blanchard was surprised early on that a middle schooler could master the organizational details of Art for Hospice. He has watched her become a role model to the younger students who make the art – as well as the benefactor of those who receive it.
“It’s a great contribution she makes,” Blanchard says. “The art brightens the patients’ rooms and definitely warms the hearts of their families to know it’s the work of a teenager to bring it here.”
Her mother says the project reflects her daughter’s innate ability to reach out to people of all types.
“She’s always been a really compassionate person,” Nancy Astrike says. “She has always easily identified with other people’s positions. It’s just part of her temperament and her character.”
A grandmother’s inspiration
Astrike-Davis credits her impulse toward volunteerism in part to her late grandmother, Colleen Astrike of Fayetteville, who spent thousands of hours volunteering with her church, library and more.
Last year, Colleen and her husband, Charles, were awarded the President’s Volunteer Service Lifetime Achievement Award after Emma interviewed them to document the required 4,000 hours of service. The award earned them a signed letter from the president.
Colleen Astrike died suddenly in November; Emma has worn her grandmother’s silver necklace ever since and continues to follow in her footsteps.
“I’ve always been inspired by Grandma, so I’m trying to live up to the example that she set of community spirit and involvement,” Astrike-Davis says, noting that more than 700 people attended Colleen Astrike’s funeral. “She just touched so many people.”
Astrike-Davis’ own volunteerism started early. When she was 9, she started the “Grandma’s Piano Club” at a local nursing home, where she would play piano and invite other guests to join in the music.
When she was 11, her own great-grandmother went into a nursing home. Her family filled her room there with family photos and other mementos. But Astrike-Davis was struck at how sparse some of the other rooms were.
It was this observation that helped her decide on the one-day, schoolwide art project that became Art for Hospice.
From there, it became an annual event at her school. She expanded it to her brother’s preschool and, over time, added more schools – to total now of 15, including one in Argentina, where she did an exchange program, and one in Honduras.
When she was in eighth grade, she earned a grant to buy canvases, her main expense, prompting her to register her hobby as a nonprofit.
She raises a few thousand dollars a year that she spends on art supplies. She enlists schools to make the art and recipients to take them, and then shuttles the art around town. Her 7-year-old brother, Evan, stamps the back of each painting with “Art of Hospice.”
Lives she has touched
For Astrike-Davis, the reward has been not just recognition, but the enjoyment of the seniors who receive the paintings: the woman whose landscape painting reminded her of her childhood in Switzerland, for one, and the man who held a patriotic painting in his lap for the last three days of his life.
Astrike-Davis personally delivered a painting to the principal who helped her start the program and was later stricken with cancer.
At many nursing homes, residents enjoy choosing their paintings from among the stacks of those donated.
“They get to go shopping and pick out the one that goes best in their room,” she says.
Astrike-Davis’ nonprofit work is woven into the fabric of a busy life that also includes top grades in Advanced Placement courses, a boyfriend, leadership roles in school clubs and her second passion, running.
She started running with her mom and joined her school’s cross-country team when she was a freshman. Last year, she finished 10th in the N.C. Independent School Athletic Association 3A cross country championships; her personal 5K record is 19:34.
She runs most mornings before school or work and has run more than 10 half-marathons.
“I just love the feeling of liberation when you put on your tennis shoes and you can go as far as you want and as fast as you want and there’s nothing in your way,” she says. “It’s just your time and your space.”
Astrike-Davis plans to be a doctor; she recently returned from a trip to the University of Chicago, where she shadowed an epidemiologist.
As for her nonprofit, her only plan is to keep reaching out to more schools and more patients.
“I just want to see it get bigger and bigger,” she says.
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