Gina Zaffarano-Keller’s dog, Ziggy, has a goofy personality and an innocent spirit. Those qualities, Zaffarano-Keller said, make Ziggy a good match for Twin Cities children dealing with significant health problems.
“Most people love dogs and dogs are, unilaterally I think, friend-makers,” she said. “And so we felt that she was the right face for this bus because children love her.”
The bus is aptly named Ziggy’s Art Bus — a cheery activity center on wheels that invites children with mobility issues to come inside and spend an hour or more molding clay, painting pictures and being creative. The bus includes a wheelchair ramp, seating, shelves with jars of art supplies and space for tables that can be turned into easels.
Zaffarano-Keller, who works as a hairdresser, was certified as a hospice volunteer two years ago. While volunteering, she noticed that the families she was working with didn’t have much opportunity to create art, something Zaffarano-Keller considers an equalizing experience.
To figure out how she could help, she interviewed families, as well as hospice and palliative professionals. She realized she needed a way to bring her vision to families.
“What became really important to these families is the mobility aspect because so often … it’s day-to-day [whether] a family can get out of their house with their child. If the child is having a day where they’re physically weak or they’re not feeling well, the family’s locked in,” Zaffarano-Keller said.
“And so the mobility aspect became sort of the forefront.”
In January of 2018, Zaffarano-Keller and a board of volunteers raised funds to allow her to purchase and remake the bus that would become Ziggy’s Art Bus (ziggysartbus.org).
“You could literally watch the little seed grow as she connected the dots between all of these possibilities,” said Michael Keller, Zaffarano’s husband. “It’s kind of fun to see it happen that close up.”
With Keller often driving, the bus began making stops in January to visit children through the Ronald McDonald House. Zaffarano-Keller and other board members have also made private at-home visits.
Zaffarano-Keller is working on adding more accessible activities for children with physical disabilities. She calls the people who have supported the bus her “village.” Some have helped because of their own connection to what Zaffarano-Keller is doing. For instance, the purchase and remodeling of the bus was helped along by a man whose son had gone through cancer treatment.
The experience that children have while creating art is what Zaffarano-Keller saw in a moment of inspiration when her husband made a painting for a friend’s birthday, pouring his heart out on paper. Memory boxes that her children kept when they were young also inspire her. Now, the children she visits can decorate their own memory boxes and make other art pieces along with their families.
“[Children] haven’t been taught out of that creative space and I think that that’s the joy for me. I have never heard a child say, ‘I don’t know how to draw,’ or ‘I can’t do art,’ ” Zaffarano-Keller said.
Art is prominent all over the bus. The outside features paintings of Ziggy frolicking outdoors with a paintbrush in her mouth and butterflies above her head, which Zaffarano-Keller calls angels. Another side features Ziggy staring up at a night sky full of stars.
“For us, that felt highly symbolic of those who’ve passed along. The stars are beautiful, and that’s just another place,” Zaffarano-Keller said.
She said she hopes to one day have a Ziggy’s Art Bus in every major city. For now, she’s focused on her first bus and providing families with a creative experience.
“I know people along the way have said, ‘Do you feel like it’s an escape for a child or a family?’ and I don’t use that word,” Zaffarano-Keller said.
“Because, to me, there’s no escaping what one’s reality is. I look at it as a place for us to move into our heart space. And that’s what art is.”
Imani Cruzen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.