Malcolm Asher, pictured here with a young patient, is using art supplies to change how kids perceive and experience the hospital.
Malcolm Asher, pictured here with a young patient, is using art supplies to change how kids perceive and experience the hospital.

A Summer Trip to Ghana Inspires a Global Health-care Mission

In July 2017, Malcolm Asher traveled to Cape Coast Teaching Hospital in Southern Ghana, Africa. Passionate about global health issues and determined to evaluate the international potential for ArtPass International, an art therapy organization that he had started only months before at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, Asher needed to immerse himself in Ghana’s health-care culture. More specifically, he wanted to understand how African children experienced the hospital.

“Their hospital experience is very different than our western hospital experience,” notes Asher, now 17 and a junior at Cleveland High School in Southeast Portland, Oregon. “More than 5 million kids there die every year from preventable diseases like Malaria and Pneumonia, and part of that is because conditions in hospitals are so poor. All money and donations go toward medical treatment. The emotional well being of these kids is completely ignored. Hospitals don’t have the resources to focus on that. This is really bad for the kids’ quality of life because some of these hospitals are 105 or 110 degrees. Some kids don’t have beds to sleep on because 20 kids are in a ward meant for 10. And even though Malaria could be easily cured in a weekend with a simple pill, kids are not seeking out medical treatment because they fear the hospital experience.”

For Asher, seeing was believing. He quickly realized while in Africa for a month that ArtPass, a nonprofit that he launched in 2016 as a way for U.S. children to create and share art to ease their anxiety in the hospital, needed to expand internationally.

“I spent a lot of time observing inside the hospital for my first two weeks in Ghana,” says Asher. “I remember this one girl in the pediatric ward who was about 12 years old. She was going through a really hard time. She was paralyzed from the waist down. Sometimes kids who have no relief from their illness will just walk in circles around their rooms, and she couldn’t even do that. She had been there for weeks. Her face was so sad, and I saw her crying a couple times. I had brought art supplies with me for about 150 kids. I handed some to her and her entire face lit up for the first time since I had been there. For the next two weeks that I was there, she was completely engaged in drawing. Her whole mood had been lifted, even though she was stuck in her bed and her parents couldn’t be with her. That is the essence of what I want so many kids to be able to experience.”

The ArtPass model, which was initially to build a network of national, teen-led chapters in hospitals around the country, has expanded through advocacy and distribution into providing art supplies to hospitals internationally. Asher connects with global health organizations that provide essential medical supplies to hospitals to ask if they will simultaneously distribute his art supplies. Since his time at Cape Coast Teaching Hospital, Asher has developed partnerships with 10 hospitals, primarily in Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania. ArtPass International has registered a total of 29 chapters on four continents.

Experts in business expansion suggest that Asher has followed essential strategies for taking a business global – expanding his vision and working with global connections to understand and evaluate the market before jumping in. “We have seen small businesses do well overseas when they have connected with local manufacturers or distributors they can trust,” write Karl Stark and Bill Stewart, founders of Avondale and contributors to Inc. magazine. “Where there is a clear opportunity and well-designed strategy, we have seen many small businesses create significant value in their global operations.”

As the organization’s founder and executive director, Asher has also devoted lots of time and energy to taking ArtPass international. In doing so, he has learned some valuable insights about identifying and penetrating global markets.

  • Build Relationships. “My biggest advice would be to reach out to other existing organizations by email or Instant Messenger,” urges Asher. “It’s intimidating reaching out to someone and saying, ‘I’m a high school student from America and I have an idea.’ But people are so willing to help out. They really want to make the world a better place. We’ve received so much support from preexisting organizations and hospitals in local communities, simply by sending a quick email and saying, ‘I’m Malcolm and this is my project. I want to help.’ There are so many adults, doctors, nurses, high school students, volunteer organization leaders that have embraced us. They have come together and worked with us toward solutions that work for their communities. Those connections have been so important.”
  • Social Media Strong. “I’m shocked with how many kids globally are on Facebook,” says Asher. “When I was in Ghana, we did school presentations every day talking to kids about things like not washing your hands in the river because of Cholera –basic global health. After each presentation, I would have a line of kids saying what’s your Facebook? Can I message you on Facebook? Some kids from the most remote areas of the world are contacting us on Facebook. That’s been shocking to me. You wouldn’t expect for somebody from rural Nigeria to reach out and say, ‘I found your organization; how can I help.’ But it’s happened.
  • Speak Up, Whatever the Language. “Africa has a large English-speaking presence. Even so, the language barrier can be difficult,” notes Asher. “But it’s not too difficult to overcome since there are so many resources out there these days. Google Translate and local translator apps have been very helpful.”
  • Don’t Fear the Unknown. “A lot of people are intimidated by things that seem so far away,” observes Asher. “I’ve grown up hearing stories of my grandma going to Namibia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania — the villages she visited and the people she met. She has her own organization, and she has a passion I find remarkable. I heard stories of her travels and experiences. When this opportunity to explore our global potential presented itself, I really embraced it. I saw this as a life-changing experience.”

Asher is focused on extending ArtPass International’s reach, marketing largely through social media to South America and across Africa. He receives global ambassador applications from around the world, often from other high school students who want to get involved with the ArtPass global mission to make art supplies available to hospitals across developing nations. A part of the organization also still works on domestic programs in the U.S.

“We’re using art supplies to change how kids perceive and experience the hospital to really diminish that stigma around hospitalization,” says Asher, who plans to pursue a career in pediatric medicine and global health. “Our goal is also to educate and encourage more kids to seek out medical attention and to improve the overall quality of life in hospitals. Once kids have a brighter hospital experience, we can slowly work toward a world where kids are not as afraid to seek out medical attention and more willing to get the care that they need. We want them to see that the hospital is not a scary place.”

Conversation Starters

What helped Malcolm Asher the most in expanding his nonprofit globally?

Have you ever spent time in the hospital? Would access to art supplies and being creative help to ease your anxiety? What do you think about ArtPass International's mission to focus on the well being of hospital patients?

What is your biggest takeaway from this article? What will stay with you the most?

11 thoughts on “A Summer Trip to Ghana Inspires a Global Health-care Mission

  1. When Malcolm Asher was expanding his nonprofit globally, what helped him was the reaction of the little girl, when Malcolm brought her colored pencils to draw. The joy and excitement from the little girl motivated Malcolm to do the same for others, especially for kids who are hospitalized and can’t do much of the things as they could. I have never spent time in the hospital. If I did spent time in a hospital, I would say that art supplies would help ease the anxiety, help to focus on something else. I think that ArtPass International’s mission to focus on the well being of hospital patients is a smart idea. It lets patients focus on something else, where they can be creative to draw what they feel or see. My biggest takeway from this article is that one little girl, was able to motivate Malcolm to take his nonprofit organization globally because of the affect it had on her.

  2. What helped Malcolm the most in spandig his organization around the globe was how the girl in the hospital reacted when he brought in just a pack of color pencils. The girl was one of Malcolm’s biggest source for motivation. She inspired him so greatly he wanted to start helping globally. I have never spent time inside hospitals, but if i was, i would most likely conclude that those utensils helped me get distracted and get my mind to another place. It would help me deal with whatever i or any kid is dealing with. I think Artpass’s mission to focus is great because the well being of patients is really important, if they didn’t kids might be getting depression or anxiety. The thing that i took from this article was how just a simple reaction or a little grin might changes someone’s whole perspective and inspire them to do a change globally for millions of kids.

  3. Inspired by how some art supplies was able to provide comfort and distraction for a little girl he met during his observation in a Ghanaian hospital, Malcolm Asher set out to bring the same experience to other hospitalized children. It was perhaps Malcolm’s reaching out to preexisting organizations that helped him the most in expanding his nonprofit, ArtPass International, from chapters within the US to having 24 chapters in 4 continents.
    As someone who has spend sometime as a child in a hospital for IVs, I would defiantly greatly appreciate having access to art supplies in order to have something else to focus on other than the IV itself. Especially since I was an especially energetic child, having to stay still for hours at a time was terrible. This is another reason why I am really grateful that an organization such as ArtPass International exists. Not only do they help takes patients’ mind off the situation that they are in, they also help support patients emotionally and mentally by giving them a way to express themselves instead of just leaving them to with nothing to do but rest.
    My biggest takeaway would probably be just how Malcolm was able to expand his organization so much simply by reaching out to preexisting organizations and other people. It really sends the message that anything can be attained, as long as you are willing to put yourself out there.

  4. The event that helped Asher the most in expanding his nonprofit globally was his time with the girl. The girl was paralyzed from the waist down and was really sad. When Asher gave her art supplies, her mood completely changed. Asher wants to bring happiness to kids in hospitals by giving them art supplies.

    I have spent times in hospitals. Access to art supplies would help me ease my anxiety. It would distract me from what I am going through and make time go faster. ArtPass International’s mission is important. In many countries, families don’t go to hospitals because they fear the hospital experience. With ArtPass, patients will have a much better experience and families will start to come to the hospitals.

    My biggest takeaway from this article definitely has to be the little girl. It’s so surprising how art supplies can completely change a person’s mood entirely. This also motivated Asher on his project. This will probably stay with me the most.

  5. I think Malcolm Asher’s organization is an amazing idea–it makes me so happy to see someone so young working to improve the world. It’s very inspiring because often time students, including me, feel so small. We feel as though our contributions would do nothing because adults will not pay attention to us. With his organization, Asher proved that is not true. Anyone can make a difference if they put in the effort.

    1. Hi Rebecca. Thank you for your comment! I agree completely. I also love the underlying message that you shouldn’t let the fear of rejection or any intimidation that you might feel from “the adult world” get in the way of your idea. Malcolm has used connections with many established professionals and organizations overseas to expand ArtPass. He had to have the courage to send those emails and to reach out by phone. We all have more power than we think!

  6. After delving into this article, I believe this trip to Ghana is very inspiring to me. The girl in this article shows just how much something simple can change a little girls life. Being paralyzed from the waist down, it is insane how such a simple thing like art supplies makes such an impact. Art distracts people from what they are going through, and focuses them on a more positive part of life. That is exactly what happened during this trip to Ghana.

  7. Students at the school I’m currently attending went to Uganda and built an orphanage (of course under the assistance of professionals and teachers) during their summer vacation. After the orphanage was built, students visited what we call “The Peace Centre”, which only takes in orphans who have no relatives and cannot survive alone. I’ve seen so many kids where both their parents have died from AIDS, and same as there relatives. Asher has done a great job of course, but focusing on the quality of life of kids isn’t the MOST meaningful thing. Especially art – it’s solely enrichment and entertaining based (correct me if I’m wrong as I’m not an artist); our students go to Uganda to teach a variety of subjects, including English, Maths, and Science.

    I think everyone could agree that a lower infant mortality rate, higher life expectancy in LEDCs is more beneficial – a larger labour force will drive the economic activity by increasing output. More output means more GDP, and more income for workers. This leads to more expenditure and keeps the economy healthy. Also, the government will have a higher tax revenue from direct taxes (income tax), so more money can be spent on health care and education. This leads into a cycle of increased literacy and life expectancy, which will increase HDI, and ultimately lead to increase in standard of living.

    ArtPass is a great idea, but I think it should be focused on NICs instead of LEDCs. I’ve always wanted to change the world, but as a high school student, I’m limited to what I can do. I raise funds all year and raise awareness of poverty and hunger around the world to different schools and companies across China, giving lectures and presentations. I’ll be providing food aid for poor rural areas in China, which is essential to maintain a robust and healthy workforce. When I get older, I’ll see if I can do anything to minimise corruption. Corruption is absolutely terrible! Children at the orphanage in “The Peace Centre” sing songs about anti-corruption at the age of 6… Well, there is a future for this country after 2 generations!

    I’ve also stayed in a hospital before. It’s not exactly great in China, but not too bad. It’s really crammed, but the service is good. I would say Chinese doctors are the most efficient and adept in the world, maybe because they constantly have to receive extra training and take more tests (for new licenses) every month… But once, when I was in a hospital, something similar to ArtPass was present – someone was playing a piano in the hall. This was EXTREMELY controversial, as a grand piano takes up a lot of space, and most patients and families are worried. But, it does bring a soothing element (for some). Art supplies won’t help with my anxiety, but instead worsen it.

    From this article, I’ve actually been inspired. The club I founded is only focused across China, specifically Shanghai. I never thought of international connections, so I might try and spread my club to other cities, then other countries across the world. I’ve done plenty of volunteer work, so I know Asher’s experience quite well.

    Asher ends with “Once kids have a brighter hospital experience, we can slowly work toward a world where kids are not as afraid to seek out medical attention and more willing to get the care that they need. We want them to see that the hospital is not a scary place.” Before this becomes the case, we need HOSPITALs. l just did some quick research, and apparently the doctor to patient ratio in Ghana is over 1 to 5000. I know that similar to me, Asher wants to impact the world. From a realistic point of view, the kids won’t even receive medical care because of the long hospital waiting lines, so let’s raise funds to get hospitals first (or train doctors)!

    Time to comment on Asher’s attempt to make his non-profit global. Building relationships is absolutely the best ever method. That’s how I’m spreading awareness of my club – talking to people I know, and seeing if they have suggestions and guide me to other companies or schools. It’s probably harder for Asher as he’s going international but if he knows anyone working at a multinational it’ll be a lot easier.

    Social media strong, again the quintessence of marketing. I’ve set up a WeChat (similar to WhatsApp but more advanced) account for my club, and it’s gained so many followers compared to people that actually read what I post on our school’s newsletter. Instagram is probably the best for social media. Not everyone checks FaceBook 24/7. Snapchat is too chill (too relaxed in the sense no one will take you seriously) and stories are deleted after 24 hours. Instagram is perfect (well in China you need VPN to access it but most people do)!

    I’ve never had language barriers since I’m bilingual, but I guess it may be harder for others. Translator apps can be really awkward sometimes so talking to a local translator is much better… Although they can mislead you or misinterpret your sentence sometimes.

    Don’t fear the unknown! Approaching different organisations, going to different countries, giving lectures to new people may seem intimidating, but it’s a great experience and a really boost to self-esteem once you complete it!

    1. Hi Harry. Thank you for your thoughtful perspective! It sounds like ArtPass has inspired you to think more globally about your own club. We wish you luck as you expand. Perhaps we could feature your club in some way on KWHS? Or even your visit to the Peace Centre, which sounds like a powerful experience. Your interest in corruption is inspiring as we work toward a more ethical planet. Be sure to contact us here: http://kwhs.wharton.upenn.edu/feedback/ if you are interested in submitting an essay about your work or about your desires to change the corruption landscape.

      I think all your ideas are fascinating. I also believe that it takes all kinds of approaches to make a meaningful impact. Asher is focused on doing his part to improve the health-care environment and someone else is focused on a different part. Both of them are changing the world in their own way, at their own pace. It is not an either/or game, but rather a collaborative approach that chips away at all the issues rocking our world.

  8. During the process of expanding Malcolm Asher’s nonprofit organization, his sympathy for the girl in the hospital, the help of other volunteers and the prevalence of the social media work together to motivate him to promote his organization globally. I believe the most fundamental stimulus for his cause is his grandma’s anecdote. The reason is pretty straightforward; the anecdote provoked his interest in visiting Ghana. If he never got the chance to hear about the story of locals and traditions there, he might not go to Ghana. If he didn’t go to the hospital in Ghana, he will not have the understanding of local people’s therapeutic need—the emotional well being.

    Malcolm Asher found the reason why the local kids are not willing to go to hospital by experiencing the hospital. However my early experience in the hospital was totally different from these kids. On the contrary to the feeling of Ghanaian, I felt relaxed and comfortable because I got rid of piles of homework and stressful school life. The most important factor contributing to my relaxed feeling was the advanced equipment and clean surroundings in the hospital. However, if I’m in the hospital of Ghana’s, I must feel anxiety and worry about my health condition. At that time, I think painting could be a choice to ease my anxiety and act as a distraction.

    To help more kids in the Ghana overcome the fear and anxiety in the hospital, Malcolm Asher establishes ArtPass, which uses art supplies to let kids know hospital is not a scary place. ArtPass mainly concentrates on the mental health of patients. I believe it is an imperative step to boost patients’ willingness to go to hospital. As we know, the self-saving consciousness that Ghanaian go to hospital voluntarily can profoundly improve their health condition. However, the limitation of the mission of ArtPass is that it does not solve the problem one and for all. The local government should invest more money to improve the living condition in the hospital. The organization can propose to enlarge the healthcare rooms and renovate the hospital. When the hospital becomes cleaner and less crowded, more kids will go to the hospital with reduced fear about hospital.

    After reading the passage, I learn that the wealth gap exists globally. Only if more people dedicate themselves to the voluntary work, the world will becomes better. The courage of Malcolm Asher to go to Ghana’s hospital despite the possibility of getting infected touches me deeply. Moreover, the idea of using social media to build the relationship between one and another impresses me. I’m a volunteer English teacher on the Internet. I taught kids in the rural area where the quality of education is poignant. A girl who lived in Shandong province, China, is one of my students. She attended our class online to improve her English. The challenge facing me is that she was not very interested in learning English. For several times, I discovered that she was not focused on our online class. At first I thought it’s the intricate problem with online teaching that caused the problem — lack of instantaneous interaction such as eye contacting, and the poor internet connection. Later, I found out that it’s because I did not identify her interest so I failed to to get her attention. To direct her attention from boring grammar and vocabulary may, I encouraged her to watch the English version of Peppa Pig to arouse her interest in learning English. To expand my volunteering project, I also leverage the advantages of Weibo, a Facebook-like social media, to promote the online volunteering teaching by expanding the size of my class and involve more volunteers. The reason is that social media is an effective way to spread information nowadays, and massive young people who have the ability to teach kids english are using social media. So it means that I can find many potential volunteers on the social media. By attracting more attention to the issue of education in the rural areas, it is possible to solve the problem and narrow the gaps between rural areas and metropolis. Searching people who graduated or are studying in the teachers training schools, and messaging them on the Weibo directly. It’s an economic and effective way to expand the online educational organization. I’m happy to see that I’m making a difference.

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