The bookkeeper turned artist paints radiation masks and windows in treatment rooms, to help bring a smile to seriously ill children.
Marina Constantinou, 56, has always enjoyed face painting.
While she carried that passion into studying Art at A Level and further studies at the London College of Fashion, her career did not stay in art but instead moved towards finance.
However, the Londoner still wanted to harness her passion and art skills for good.
“When my kids were a certain age, they’d go ‘mummy, we want a face painter’ and I just said, ‘I’m not paying someone, I’ll try it,’ and I did, and I liked it and I thought you know what, I think I want to try and get better at this,” she said.
So, when her sister’s friend, that was setting up a charity (Spread a Smile) said they needed someone to help with the artistic side of things, she simply could not refuse.
After supporting in any way that she could and spending more time in hospitals, Marina noticed that the radiation masks that children used for treatment looked “dull” and she wanted to do something about it.
“When I met Laura from the radiotherapy team and she showed me the mask, that was it. I said ‘they don’t wear that, why are we not painting it,’ these kids cannot be wearing that mask,” she said.
Following some research and discovering that someone in Leeds had been painting masks, the pair waited to get the all clear from the radiotherapy team before deciding to design masks exactly how children wanted them.
Since getting the green light, the masks have been a hit and Marina has painted over 300, with every mask adhering to whatever design each child requests.
From a wide range of designs such as Spiderman to football teams and favourite musicians to family portraits, every mask is different, but they all work to try and brighten what is a terrifying experience and many children even keep them after treatment.
“Probably about 90% of the children that go through therapy take it [their masks] home. [Before] they would be left and thrown away, but now the children want to take them home.
“A lot of them have embraced the fact that they’ve had the treatment, they’re getting better and they want to have that as a remembrance of something that was positive towards their experience,” she told Oh My Goodness.
One specific request that Marina enjoyed was a young boy who gave her a photo of his sister and asked that the mask be painted identical to the photo for Halloween as “we’ll be like twins” and he “wanted to play a joke on her [his sister]”.
While Marina enjoys being able to try and make the experience a little easier for children suffering, she admits it can be hard sometimes.
“It’s tear-jerking. When you know the background. With masks, they are literally clipped to a board so when they are made, they are so tight on your face so when you’re lying down from having the beams and lasers on you, you cannot move your head, or nothing, so you’re rigid.
“Some children have to have a general anaesthetic because they’re either too young to be able to sit or lay in the position without moving.
“There was this boy and they [his family] really didn’t want to put him under general [anaesthetic] because he was too old, but he was panicking.
“Apparently once they gave him the mask, it was like everything just all dissolved, the fear of it all, he was just so excited to wear it and have the treatment,” she said.
Painting masks is not the only way that Marina has been helping to sparkle children’s time in hospital.
She regularly paints rooms and windows to brighten them up as children are sometimes confined for weeks at a time.
Having now painted in over 115 rooms, Marina is able to personalise each window and cater a design based on children’s interests.
While Marina is unable to meet the children a lot of the time, she enjoys the positive feedback that she receives and knows “the staff do a great job in getting them to the children”.
Spread a Smile not only help to bring laughter and joy through Marina’s art initiatives, but also through hospital visits and outings & events; but that all changed when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
The pandemic brought a whole new challenge for the charity in not only limiting the ability to entertain children with art, but in every aspect.
But Spread a Smile wanted to ensure that the children did not miss out on being able to express their creativity, so started holding art classes via Zoom.
“We are an entertainment charity with a 1-to-1 ethos, so we were left wondering what we were going to do. We launched SmileTV and it sort of fell into place.
“We were getting Zooms with the magicians, singers and the fairies. Everybody was going on Zoom and it was like we can’t go to hospitals, let’s just do the same thing.”
As the world starts to seem like it is easing out of the pandemic, Spread a Smile have been able to put more events back on.
A vital part of what the charity does is include everyone. Every child that undergoes treatment is invited for days out and given gifts along with their siblings as it is deemed a shared experience.
Spread a Smile continues to carry out amazing and vital work in making what is a terrifying experience for children just that little bit easier, but they welcome any help.
“We’re always looking for any additional support either being in donations for toys or even art materials, it’s really hard trying to get people to donate drawing pads or pencils, pens.
“Money is great because then we can add the money to purchase things. But toys are always things and costumes,” Marina said.
Evolving in her role to become Head of Art, even though Marina does not meet all the children that she paints masks for, she is a vital part of their journey.
“I’m just honoured that I know I’m part of that journey for them and what I’ve done is moving them into a much better place and I can’t be happier about that.
“From the love of just doing something as a hobby, the face painting has now turned out to be my work which is just unbelievable how it’s all changed for me, it’s amazing,” she added.
You can learn more about the amazing work carried out by the charity on the Spread a Smile website.
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