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ORANGE : Patients Make Faces at Illness

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Francisco Cortez was convinced that the colorful mask he had just made would make him fly. The 8-year-old, who is battling stomach cancer, said he was going to wear it on Halloween.

“I am going to dress up with a lot of feathers,” said Francisco, who lives in Santa Ana. “I’m going to be a bird.”

But Samantha Scott, awaiting a bone marrow transplant, wasn’t sure whether she would wear her equally decorative mask. Her mother, Carolyn, said it might clash with the ballerina costume the 5-year-old from Riverside is planning to wear.

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The pair were among 30 children participating in a pre-Halloween activity Thursday afternoon at Children’s Hospital of Orange County. The unusual arts-and-crafts event was presented as part of the hospital’s ongoing recreational therapy program, which is designed to inject fun into the daily routines of young patients.

“This is a great program for self-expression,” said Jill Johnson, a recreational therapist at CHOC. “It’s new and different, and it’s very therapeutic.”

But the children were doing more than just making masks this week, said hospital officials. They were also helping the environment. Almost all the materials used for the masks had been previously discarded--egg cartons, straws, cardboard plates, sponges and plastic knives and forks.

The program’s creator, artist Nilza DiCarlo, herself dressed in an elaborate homemade costume fashioned from trash, said she hopes that in addition to being fun, the mask-making will raise the level of the children’s environmental awareness.

“I stand for recycling,” she said. “I’m very involved in transforming things that are thrown out into something useful.”

“This presents another way to look at things,” she added. “It may not solve the problems of the world, but it may make kids a little more conscientious.”

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DiCarlo, who is originally from Brazil, supervised the children as they made their masks. The 36-year-old Orange resident said masks play a central role in Brazilian culture.

“Masks are my roots,” she said. “And it’s in everyone’s genes really. When we are first born we look up and see such big faces. They are like masks.”

DiCarlo said the masks help the children tap into their feelings.

“When the kids make a mask, it’s an extension of themselves,” DiCarlo added. “It frees their egos a little bit and the creativity process changes their outlook. It helps them feel happier.”

Carolyn Scott agrees.

“This is great,” said Scott as she helped Samantha glue straws to her mask. “She doesn’t realize she’s sick. She comes here and has fun. It’s important she feels that way.”

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