LEXINGTON, Ky. (Dec. 12, 2016) — It’s no one’s birthday, anniversary or retirement party, but child life specialist Ashley Rapske has a container filled with fresh-baked morsels free for the taking at Kentucky Children’s Hospital.
Rapske has worked in the KCH Child Life Program for the past three years, and most days of the week she brings cookies, bars, cakes and other baked treats with her to work. When she was interviewed for the job three years ago, her future supervisor wanted to know how she coped with stress.
Child Life specialists and assistants are in constant contact with patients and families, providing emotional support, procedural preparation, and coordinating developmental and normative activities for children receiving inpatient treatment. They encounter hurting children and heartbreaking cases on a daily basis. Maintaining interests outside the hospital helps workers manage the stressful nature of their job.
“I said, “Oh, I like to bake,’” Rapske said of her response to the question.
A lifelong practitioner of “baking therapy,” Rapske finds joy and gratification in sharing the products from her oven. Her off-hours baking habit has turned into a ritual for sweets-seekers on staff at KCH. KCH nurses, doctors, therapists, maintenance staff, and child life specialists and assistants often stop by the Child Life Department to sample her homemade cookies, cakes, bars and snacks. She also cooks a crockpot meal for her child life co-workers every week. Rapske said homemade pastries improve moods, encourage hardworking staff to take a break and bring people together during difficult times.
“I think it’s a little thing that can make a big difference,” Rapske said. “I’ve had nurses who are feeling down come in, and you can see their smile. They are like, ‘I do feel better. Thank you.’”
Rapske remembers how her treats brought staff together after the sudden loss of a patient on the floor. She said many staff members gathered around her batch of cookies to commiserate and work through the pain of the loss.
“We said, ‘Let’s be grateful that we get to go home at night,’” Rapske said. “It helped put things in perspective. We had a smile and a laugh, and it kind of got us over the hump.”
Rapske’s recipes are often more extravagant than a standard plate of sugar cookies or tray of brownies. She dabbles with a variety of ingredients and plants unexpected surprises in her confections, such as stuffing caramel candies in peanut butter cookies. After Halloween, she repurposed leftover candy by baking a batch of Twix brownies. She also replicates nostalgic desserts, such as oatmeal cream pies, vowing the commercial version doesn’t compete with her homemade cookie. But her most popular recipe is the classic chocolate chip cookie.
“The word is out that if you need something good, stop by the Child Life office,” Rapske said.
For Rapske, caring for children and baking were always two activities paired together. She started baking with her mother, a stay-at-home mom who ran a daycare in their home. Rapske learned recipes from her mom, but wasn’t always an expert baker. She remembers the chocolate icing running off her first cake. She started out replicating her mother’s banana bread recipe. Now, she’s so familiar with her recipes that she can eyeball measurements and tinker with ingredients.
At the same time, growing up surrounded by children she developed a passion for caring for children. Rapske found baking was an activity in which she could easily engage young children. She has enjoyed showing her nieces and nephews how to crack an egg and sprinkle salt in a mixing bowl.
“They are so proud to show off their creation and what they helped to make,” Rapske said. “It’s a very sensory experience.”
As an amateur baker, Rapske can’t share her baked goods with children in the hospital, but she spreads sweetness to other children battling illness or living in poverty through a volunteer role. Every Tuesday, Rapske reports to Maxell Christian Church to bake a custom designer cake for a child’s birthday for the nonprofit Sweet Blessings. She receives a description of the child’s interests and decorates the birthday cake based on the child’s wishes. Her creative birthday cakes have ranged from Frozen princesses to superheroes and Lego constructions.
When asked why she bakes for everyone — even strangers — Rapske has a simple reply. Baking is her way of showing others she cares.
“It’s health care — you have to take care of yourself and help people take care of themselves too.”
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