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Women's History Month: Child Life Leaders

During Women's History Month, we pause to celebrate the women in child life who have led this profession to the dynamic and impactful field it is today. The following individuals are just a few of the women whose passion and dedication exemplify what it means to be a child life professional.

Isabelle Whittier

Isabelle WhittierIsabelle Whittier was the first documented United States hospital worker solely dedicated to bringing play into the healthcare setting. Referred to as a "play lady", Isabelle was hired at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston by Dr. Frtiz B. Talbot, who observed that she "filled the lacking gap in our ward and the results have been beyond my expectations." Isabelle described her own role in a 1922 publication as "trying to find what two hours daily of organized play will do for sick children." Though she worked before the term "child life" was coined, Isabelle's early introduction of play into the hospital solidified its therapeutic and medical value. 

Read more about Isabelle and "play ladies" here.

Emma Plank

Emma Plank with children in a hospital playroomEmma Plank played a pivotal role in the establishment of the child life profession after she came to the United States from Austria to study child development at Mills College. She worked in the hospital setting after obtaining her graduate degree, founding the Child Life and Education Division at Cleveland City Hospital in 1955 at the request of Nobel Laureate Dr. Fred Robbins. In 1962, Emma authored Working with Children in Hospitals, a foundational text still used to train child life professionals today. She was an establishing member of the Association for the Well-Being of Hospitalized Children and Their Families (renamed the Association for the Care of Children in Hospital) founded in 1966. Emma's legacy lives on as child life professionals across the global support children and families during healthcare encounters.

Joan Chan, MSW, CCLS

Joan Chan with caregiver and childJoan Chan, MSW, CCLS, Chinese child life specialist, is known for her role establishing hospital playrooms across the east coast of the United States as well as her work developing child life internships. She was a founding member of the Association for the Well-Being of Hospitalized Children and Their Families, as well. In the early 1970s, she created and directed the child life program at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. In 1983, she assisted Schneider Children's Hospital of Long Island in assuring their pediatric wards were family-oriented and included playrooms, caregiver facilities, and lively designs. Joan's work continues to influence how playrooms are designed and how preceptors engage with child life learners.

Dr. Evelyn Oremland

Dr. Evelyn OremlandDr. Evelyn Oremland made her mark on the profession by contributing to the education of child life specialists, standards of certification, and literature regarding clinical practice. She is best known for founding the Child Life Graduate Program at Mills College in 1977 and coauthoring the book The Effects of Hospitalization on Children, still used in child life classrooms today. An avid scholar, her publications took her around the world, and she presented on child life topics in Europe almost every year. Her role in the Child Life Council included serving on the Executive Committee as well as establishing standards for the child life specialist certification. She is remembered as a caring professor and hard-working researcher.

Fran Ritter

Fran RitterFran Ritter became the first Black individual to hold the office of Board President at ACLP in 1984, serving her full term until 1986. As president, she sought to 'reaffirm our mission to make people feel good at what they're doing; to believe in what they are doing.'" She played a key role in organizing and executing the Annual Child Life Conference in its beginning years. During her career, Fran served as Director of the Child Life Department at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for over two decades, growing the program and providing instrumental training and encouragement to emerging child life professionals.

Read more about Fran's career in "Honoring Fran Ritter- ACLP's First Black President"

Mary Barkey, MA, CCLS

Mary BarkeyMary Barkey, MA, CCLS developed the Comfort Measures models, a staple in child life practice, along with nurse Barabara Stephens, RN, MN. During her 27 years at the Child Life Department at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital, Mary engaged in collaboration, exploration, and intervention to revolutionize how pediatric healthcare teams approached patients undergoing stressful procedures. In 1992, she and Barbara presented the Comfort Measures model at the Child Life Conference, sparking conversations and ingenuity. In less than a year, the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca approached Mary and Barbara to create and present educational materials on Comfort Measures nationwide. Mary is remembered for her interdisciplinary approach to child life practice, fierce advocacy, and influence across the healthcare setting. ACLP's Mary Barkey Clinical Excellence Awards is named after her in honor of her contributions to the field. 

Read an interview with Mary here.

Alisha Saavedra, MA, CCLS

Alisha S.Alisha Saavedra, MA, CCLS, is ACLP's current Board President and the first Latina to hold the office. She has a passion for educating and mentoring child life learners as they develop the skills and knowledge to become practicing professionals. Alisha is an Assistant Professor and the Director of Clinical Training for the Master of Science in Child Life Specialist program at Loma Linda University, but her professional work extends across the globe as she collaborates with international groups such as The Children's Hospital, Zhejiang University, P.R. China. Her involvement at ACLP spans a decade and includes serving as Chair on the Internship Accreditation Oversight Committee and Chair-Elect for the Practicum Task Force, as well as lending her expertise as a Subject Matter Expert and in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts. 

ACLP extends gratitude to Isabelle, Emma, Joan, Evelyn, Fran, Mary, and Alisha as well as all women who have contributed to the growth and success of child life. We look forward to continuing to progress as a field together.

Child Life Profession