“Do you want to see some magic today?”
Kelly Folliard begins every trip to Advocate Hope Children’s Hospital like this— donning a cape, sanitizing her equipment, greeting each patient and guest and asking for permission to show some tricks.
First on the schedule is eight-year-old Jeyden Augusta, a quiet boy clad in animal pajamas who at first seems more interested in his coloring book than a magician. As Folliard unpacks her gear, Jeyden’s younger sister perches at the back of the armchair and observes, Jeyden’s older brother skeptically watches and his mom eagerly readies her iPhone to document this moment. Within five minutes, the room is erupting in laughter drowning out the beeping machines and hanging drips.
A Magical Idea
This program is the brainchild of Mike Walton. With a background in the Peace Corps, an MBA from Northwestern and a teach-yourself-magic book, Walton left a career as a commodity trader and founded a charity called Open Heart Magic.
“Initially, our focus was on doing magic for kids,” Walton explained. “Now, it’s on improving the hospital experience for kids, whatever we can do.”
Walton had always been interested in sleight-of-hand and had a vanishing coin set as a kid, but decided to learn magic himself and bring it to children’s hospitals, starting with Rush Medical Center in 2003.
It was important that the interaction happened in each patient’s hospital room and not as a performance in the playroom.
“When kids are well enough for the playroom, often [the insurance says] they’re well enough for to go home,” Walton said. He wanted to make sure that all kids could experience Open Heart Magic, whatever their medical condition.
“The Peace Corps was in my blood, and I knew I wanted to start something,” Walton said. “When people ask, ‘If you had a million dollars and could do anything,’ I knew I wanted to start a non-profit.”
With what seemed like the wave of a magic wand, the bedside interactions snowballed and Walton soon was training new volunteer magicians in a program he dubbed Magic University. He now has 80 volunteer magicians in nine Chicago area hospitals.
In a sign of the organization’s popularity, he even presented the idea of magic and pediatric patients to a national hospital conference.
“You want to make sure that whatever you’re doing really solves a problem,” Walton said.
A Personal Magic Show
Back in little Jeyden’s room, Folliard begins with a card trick.
“What are some magic words that you guys know? I need a really awesome magic word,” she says. Jeyden’s brother, with his eyes shining brightly behind a pair of glasses, eagerly raises his hand and exclaims, “Open Sesame!”
After the brother picks a card from Folliard’s deck and she shuffles them, Jeyden and his siblings wave their hands over the pile. Folliard, magically, takes the top card off the stack of red cards, and it’s the same card as before—but a blue back.
“What the…” Jeyden’s brother is speechless.
If it seems like magic tricks are a bit unusual for a sterile, sanitized setting like a hospital room, then that’s exactly what Walton was aiming for. “To take someone from that stage of isolation…it’s so out of place [in a hospital] that it’s powerful,” he said.
The magic is more than just engaging the patient—“it’s not about them watching, it’s about them doing something,” Walton said—it’s also about engaging the parent.
From parents snapping pictures of their kids’ surprised faces to becoming involved in the trick themselves, the magician is also there to help alleviate some of their stress for a few minutes. Many times, parents profusely thank the magician for a welcome distraction and ask when is the soonest they can come back.
“When they see their parents relax, the patients relax, too,” Walton said. The magicians also involve siblings and any other guests that might be there when coming to visit. Each child receives a magic wand and supplies for their own magic trick — provided they take the magician’s oath, of course.
“The presentation of the wand is the big whoop-dee-doo for kids,” Walton said.
For Jeyden and his siblings this was absolutely true.
With utmost seriousness, Folliard teaches the kids to raise their right hand and take the Magician’s Pledge. “You guys gotta promise me that you’ll practice, okay?” she says.
She doesn’t have to tell them twice—in mere seconds, the coloring book is tossed aside as the kids begin experimenting on their own tricks.
“Thank you, so much,” Jeyden’s mom says as she closes the door behind the magician, the look in her eyes says it all.
Magical Superhero to the Rescue
Although Walton’s magical volunteering began in a room like Jeyden’s, Open Heart Magic is exploring a new frontier: pediatric isolation rooms.
“In order to visit [kids who must be isolated for medical reasons], you need masks and gloves,” he said. “Prior to this program, we didn’t see those kids because our magic is in their hand. Our goal is creating interactions.”
On his first visit to an isolation room, there was a code blue emergency called a few doors down from the patient’s room. But when he entered the hospital room, “it was like we weren’t even wearing the masks,” he said. “Isolation rooms are some of my favorite rooms.”
Magicians visit all sorts of rooms—emergency rooms, intensive care units, long-term, short-term—and that’s something that Walton takes pride in. Since the charity’s beginning, “we were gonna see all the kids,” he said. “In the world of kids, a magician is a superhero.”
Sometimes Walton and his crew had to think like superheroes and develop innovative ways for a child to participate. For example, if the patient can’t move their limbs, the magician encourages them to blink to trigger the magic trick instead of tapping or waving their arm.
Nicole Lennie, a child life specialist at Advocate, considers Open Heart Magic to be one of the hospital’s most unique programs.
“We’ve never had a negative response. It’s always, ‘can we get more,’” Lennie said. “The biggest benefit is the focus is always on what’s medically going on. But when the magician comes in, it’s not.”
Fun For All Ages
The second visit is a few rooms down, with Romero Sortor, 17, and his mom. The difference between entertaining an eight-year-old and a seventeen-year-old with magic tricks seems vast, but Folliard, a kindergarten teacher, is undaunted.
As Folliard sets up her equipment and introduces herself to Romero, his mom finishes a conversation with his doctor. His mother hugs her knees as she sits on the window seat, watching from afar. Romero is the typical teenager—a Northwestern blanket is displayed on his bed as the football player texts friends from the cell phone in his lap. The atypical part, though, is that he’s sitting in a wheelchair wearing a hospital gown after an appendix procedure.
Folliard begins this visit by describing how she struggles with shuffling cards and persuading him to help her. He pulls a queen of hearts from the middle of the deck and replaces it, before Folliard shuffles again.
Then she displays the faces of the cards—magically, they have all been changed to queens of hearts. With a flick of her wrist, Folliard transforms the deck back to 52 unique faces as Romero’s jaw drops and his mom chuckles from the window seat.
Open Heart Magic has been making kids’ jaws drop across the Chicago area, from Northshore Evanston Hospital to Central DuPage Hospital. Walton said he’s trying to expand its operations on the south side of Chicago at Advocate in Oak Lawn and the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.
Your Help Is Needed
One way to raise awareness and money is through their first annual Magicpalooza fundraiser, chaired by Folliard. It will take place at 115 Bourbon St. on Friday, Sept. 6 from 7 p.m to midnight.
“We want to get the word out on the south side at Magicpalooza, specifically for the Oak Lawn and Hyde Park areas,” Walton said. “We want to introduce Open Heart Magic to those communities.”
He is seeking more volunteers, who can be trained to become magicians.
Last year, magicians visited 3,800 hospital rooms, according to Walton, and they’re on track to visit about 5,000 this year. The main obstacle is finding volunteers, he said.
Volunteers need not have any experience in magic; if they are out of college, available in the evenings and on Saturdays, have previous volunteering experience, and are able to commit to a year of service with visits about once a week, then Open Heart Magic is looking for them.
From Patient to Magician
Folliard has been with Open Heart Magic for three years and takes pride in her work.
“There is nothing better in the world,” she says.
She proceeds to turn one small red ball into two with a quick swipe of her finger.
Folliard has Romero cup the two balls in his hand and his mom tosses invisible balls at his fists. Ball after invisible ball lands in his hands and when he opens his fists, at least half a dozen clones of the red balls spill out.
“How…how did that…” Romero says, dumbfounded, as his mom throws her head back in laughter.
Folliard feigns surprise. There is seemingly only one explanation for it—
“You’re magical, Romero!”