To what lengths would you go to make the life of a hospitalized child more joyful? For Maria Fatima “Girlie” Garcia-Lorenzo, she went as far as forging the path for the child life profession in her home country. 

 And like most extraordinary achievements, Girlie’s tremendous impact as the first child life specialist in the Philippines began with her bravery and determination to fulfill an unmet, yet entirely crucial, need. Through her passion, diligence and compassion for hospitalized children, she humanized healthcare in the Philippines with international inclusivity in mind. 

In 1992, Girlie was studying for her M.S. in psychology at Manila University. As a requirement for her play therapy course, she had to demonstrate sustained interactions with children at East Avenue Medical Center in the Pediatric Oncology unit. During this same time, she attended a psychology conference where she was introduced to a vocation she hadn’t heard of before- child life. Her first instinct was not to be idle, but to find a way to bring this concept to children and families in the Philippines. 

Shortly after, she applied to become a child life intern at the University of California San Francisco. From her acceptance onward, she became the first certified child life specialist in the Philippines, successfully bridging the international child life gap. To Girlie, broadening the diversity of child life past North American borders was imperative.

 Her reasoning was simple, “Child life is important everywhere and everyone needs and deserves access.”

Among her many achievements is her founding of Kythe Foundation, which in 1994 she expanded to include child life as a primary function.  Kythe is a nonprofit organization aimed towards improving the quality of life among hospitalized children with cancer and other chronic illnesses. Members of Kythe are a group of trained professionals providing child life and psychosocial support services. As the only foundation in the Philippines offering these services, they have selflessly provided psychosocial support to over 18,000 children with cancer and other chronic illnesses and their families since 1992. Joining together with hospital partners, donors and volunteers, Kythe aims to promote healing and growth while inspiring the hope needed for survival during even the most difficult medical circumstances. With a three-strong team of child life specialists who are certified, many child life “coordinators” composed of nurses, midwives and other medical professionals who offer psychosocial support, and a host of volunteers, Kythe has been breaking barriers in child life for 30 years.

Above all, Girlie built Kythe to foster “opportunities to help children learn, play and grow even when they are in the hospital.” As a pioneer in humanizing palliative and extended care for children, Girlie has taught doctors and policy makers to recognize the essential value of child life, with it now being signed into law as a requirement for pediatric oncology patients.

Andy Mangione Standish, CCLS the founder of Standish Foundation for Children described Girlie as a selfless pioneer, whose determination and compassion are an inspiration to psychosocial support providers worldwide. Girlie defied the odds and built a successful, sustainable model that will continue to serve children and families for decades to come. Standish Foundation for Children looks forward to continuing our relationship with the team at Kythe.

Reflecting on her lifetime of dedication to hospitalized children, she stresses that it takes a very special kind of person to thrive in the child life field. “We give seminars about how to grow as a person, asking ‘how have you become a better person as part of your experience with Kythe?’. Child life is not for everyone, it’s hard to emotionally handle.” 

An excellent child life specialist will put personal emotions aside and only ask one question, “How can we make hospitals less traumatic for children?” She says that when the child is the sole focus, you will do everything to alleviate stress and anxiety for the child, beyond what emotional fatigue may be felt internally.

For Kythe, the volunteer program fills a critical need. “You learn child life by immersing in and experiencing child life. Our volunteer program is very strong, we constantly advocate for it. We say, ‘Don’t just stop at donating, visit the patients.’ The seed of compassion and the seed of commitment that we have planted in the hearts and minds of our volunteers is nurtured throughout their time with Kythe.”

Perhaps the most poignant memory of her child life career is an indelible example of the importance and efficacy in this practice.

A child under her care became fearful of chemotherapy, sprinting to the hospital playroom. When asked why he chose to hide there, he responded that “This playroom is safe, no pain happens here.” He knew that this space was where he was free to be a child, not poked or given medicine, not where he was an oncology statistic, going through the mundane, painful and often scary treatment. In this child life space, he was himself again.

Being known as a visionary or a trailblazer is not an easy title to be given, especially in children’s healthcare. To be known as the first to achieve a certification in your home country is even more rare. But when Girlie was introduced to this field, she changed the trajectory of her life’s purpose and the medical field in her country entirely. Because of her, children were given a new opportunity to truly live, to truly be children, even in the hospital. The value and impact of Girlie’s work is immeasurable. Because of her work, children and families in the Philippines can understand and express their feelings about their medical situation while practicing coping strategies to deal with the fear and stress that inevitably follows.

With 30 years of experience, even now in her retirement, Girlie continues to make the lives of pediatric patients more meaningful through seeds of compassion that she grew into the bright spark of hope to heal.