When Yali Derman was 10 years old and recovering from a lifesaving bone-marrow transplant, she was given bandannas by well-meaning loved ones to cover her balding head, the result of the harsh treatment she had been undergoing.
But instead of wearing the bandannas, Derman sewed them together, added shoelaces for straps and created tote bags. It was a form of art therapy.
“For me art was a very important avenue that let me express myself,” said Derman, now 21, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was 4. “It gave me a voice at a time when the voice was the hardest thing to find.”
Derman, now a nursing student at the University of Pennsylvania, has been in remission since her brother, Ben, gave her his bone marrow in August 2000.
She now has combined her passion for art therapy, her desire to give back to those medical professionals who cared for her and the need to provide the same outlet for children battling illnesses into an not-for-profit art project.
She created a line of colorful tote bags that she sells, and donates 100 percent of the profits to K.I.D.S.S. for Kids, an organization that raises money for Family Support Services programs and art therapy at Ann Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, the hospital that cared for her when she was ill.
Derman, who grew up in a family of doctors in Highland Park, spent this summer as a student nurse at Lurie Children’s and recently held a tote-bag workshop with about a dozen young patients.
She wrapped up her summer internship on the hospital’s hematology and oncology floor last week by presenting the hospital with a $150,000 check, money raised by selling her colorful peacock tote bags.
She donated an additional $2,500 that she was awarded when named L’Oréal Paris’ Beauty of Giving Award. She was featured in the May issue of Glamour Magazine as one of the Top Ten Collegiate Women.
“It has come full circle,” she said of being able to give back to the hospital that saved her life 12 years ago. “It is said to save a life is to save the world. This is full circle … there are so many things to celebrate.”
Kathleen Keenan, hospital spokeswoman and a longtime friend of Derman and her family, described Yali as “a work of art herself.”
“Yali’s art engages and delights the children, but it is seeing the joy and hope in families’ and staff’s eyes when Yali enters the room …,” Keenan said. “Cancer survivor, artist, philanthropist, nursing candidate, Yali has not only reached her dreams, she’s shared them with all.”
Derman has been selling her bags for about two years. But her first shot at raising money for charity through her artwork came when she was 16.
Derman had a wish with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to give back to the Make-A-Wish charity itself. She was partnered with designer Kate Spade and the two designed and sold tote bags, raising $50,000.
The effort resulted in Spade and Derman being honored as donors of the year in 2007 and showed Derman that her dream of using art to help others could become a reality.
Maureen Haugen, one of Derman’s nurses when Derman was a patient at Lurie Children’s and Derman’s nursing supervisor this summer, recalled the young girl in recovery and how expressing herself through art helped save her life.
“Art therapy for Yali was an escape to make the hard things easier and more fun,” Haugen recalled. “And there were a lot of hard things about what she went through. She used it to entertain and express herself and her feelings. It was part of the healing process.”
Brother Ben Derman, 24, a medical student doing his rotation at Lurie Children’s and working with some of the same nurses and doctors who cared for his sister, said when Yali turned to art therapy as a child, he and his family were encouraged.
“We viewed this as her way of coping with her illness,” he said. “She carried that with her throughout her progression into remission. It became not only an expression of her voice and her way of coping with illness, but also as a way of giving back.”
For more information on K.I.D.S.S. for Kids and Yali Derman and to buy items from her line, Yali’s Carry On, visit kidssforkids.org. The bags are $85.