In 1998 five young Christian leaders began an innovative project, now nationally renowned, in one of the main children's hospitals in Santiago, Chile-Roberto del Rio. They supplemented their burden to help alleviate suffering young people with the guidance and teachings of a professional clown therapist "Tio Sammy" and specialist in the field of play and humor therapy. They found that by dressing up as clowns (without to much makeup so little children would not be frightened) and applying a touch of humor they could readily gain the attention and trust of children and distract them from the pain and stress of their daily lives. In this case, the humor does not come from the head, but from the heart; and it brings reminders of joy and hope into rooms of fear and disease. The project's first efforts were met with very warm acceptance by both patients and hospital staff. Grace was one of the pioneers, and each year more people offered to help, and now the project is active in other institutions as well.
The primary purpose of El Tren de la Alegria is to help patients with sever burns, cancer or other degenerative diseases and their families to cope with the different stages of the healing process during their stay in the hospital. We also seek to create a bridge between the volunteers and the hospital staff in order to provide the patients with resources for a better quality of life. Through the Therapy of Happiness workshops we bring encouragement through joy, which changes the chemical function of the physical body and as a result it increases oxygen in the blood and augments cell growth, it activates de immune system and stimulates the appetite. It also has been proven to alleviate stress and encourage positive thinking, complementing the medical treatment. More and more the medical community is appreciating the role of affection and human touch in the healing process, realizing the needs of the human spirit must also be met. When someone is depressed, his whole body feels it, and this state of mind is translated right down to the cellular level. Therefore, a first objective is to reverse that cycle, and through play and humor the energy that is dissipated by depression can be recovered. We have found that it is one of the most powerful ways of defeating hopelessness and bringing a positive attitude to a situation.
"El Tren de la Alegria" (Train of Happiness) is far from just a clowning experience, but rather an effective counseling & soul-healing program. Through El Tren de la Alegria we have been able to reach over 5,000 children in these past 2 ½ years, plus extend to their parents & relatives, as well as the nurses & doctors whom we have come in contact with.
It is always a new experience each week with new children to cheer up, encourage & bring a ray of light & hope into their little lives. Most of the ones who do come for treatment are from very poor backgrounds. The children's surroundings are poor, lacking in education some of them, their relations with their parents being very poor & most of them lacking in the fellowship & love which they experience when we visit them.
During a typical hospital visit, we sit with the different children to listen to their stories of how their accident happened, comfort them & play games with them, read stories, color with the smaller ones & attempt to bring up laughter into their sometimes broken lives. To realize this need for laughter therapy, one must understand that parents visiting their sick children are usually met with a very cold greeting, with many of the children actually being sadder after the visit.
For a couple years now, El Tren de la Alegria has been a permanent fixture each week on the 5th floor of the hospital, where all the young cancer patients are treated. The directors of the hospital have given our volunteers permission to visit anywhere declaring that we are the only volunteers in the history of the hospital who have given so much time & effort, and genuinely helped lift the children's spirits.