Malibu’s Paige Stoker was barely out of high school when she cofounded an ambitious project to help ease the anxiety of children who find themselves in the unfortunate situation of being hospitalized. She and another Malibu local, Bryan Spunt, founded Big Smiles—a nonprofit that brings art to young patients at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA. Stoker is so passionate about improving the lives of children—especially those facing medical challenges—she’s just completed graduate school, earning a master’s degree in psychology, and will soon start putting her education and talent to work helping children as her career.
The 2012 Malibu High School graduate attended San Diego State University studying psychology, before matriculating at Phillips Graduate University for her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy with an emphasis on art therapy. While Stoker was a full-time student, she devoted herself to her Big Smiles charity. The group brings art supplies such as paint and canvases to hospitalized children at UCLA. The program expanded for a couple of years to other hospitals as well.
Big Smiles operates twice a month on Saturdays to enrich the lives of child patients.
“We go in to UCLA with a bunch of different art supplies—mainly painting—and we just try to create a different environment for the patients and their families, whether it be siblings, or parents, or aunts, uncles or grandparents,” the 25-year-old described. “We play Kidz Bop, we have colorful canvases and big tarps we put on the ground and tables. It’s just a different way for the patients to feel like kids instead of patients, which is what the child life specialists do. We’re a continuation of that. It’s very important to do. It’s giving them a distraction.”
Big Smiles is a branch of the Chase Foundation, which supports play rooms in hospitals.
“They create spaces for kids to go and play during their stays at hospitals,” Stoker said. “The foundation also pays for child life specialists to come in, who are the most wonderful people in the hospitals. They can help kids understand their medical diagnoses or explain the procedures that are coming up and also explain to parents the crazy medical terminology into actual human language.” The Big Smiles program works with anyone who can paint up to age 18 in the pediatric unit, although they’ve worked with infants making foot and hand prints.
With her passion for helping children and her interest and experience with arts, her new degree will allow Stoker to expand on her commitment to making a difference. Even in grad school, she continued her devotion to Big Smiles while also interning at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles where she did art therapy with the children being treated there.
“There’s a difference between the work that I was doing at CHLA and UCLA. There’s art as therapy and then [there’s] art therapy,” she explained. “Our nonprofit does art as therapy, which is using art as a fun, distraction, play kind of situation. Other people find hobbies like cooking or gardening—something [where] when you do it you are invested in it and afterward you feel better,” Stoker clarified. Stoker, a past Face of Malibu, conducted the therapy not only with patients, but with their families, as well—parents, grandparents or primary caregivers.
With a master’s degree, Stoker is considered an associate therapist. She praised her grad school, saying, “It’s a tiny school, but everyone there was amazing. It was the best program I could ever ask for.” Starting her new career as a therapist with bright prospects ahead, the Malibu resident will take her passion of helping kids with art therapy to a new level.
“Without the bachelor’s program, Bryan Spunt and all the people at UCLA, where I am today wouldn’t be possible,” she said.