"You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” reads the tattoo on Lana Sommers' forearm. The quote, inspired by the children’s storybook Miss Rumphius, has become a mantra for the Lesley University Art Therapy and Child Studies (now Children, Youth, and Family Studies) alum. And through her international volunteer work and career as a Behavioral Para Professional, they’ve become words she puts into practice every day.
Because Lana's grandparents were missionaries, her parents were born and raised in France and in South America. Growing up in an international American household, Lana’s passion for exploring cultures and helping others began at a young age. “My parents emphasized being tolerant, accepting, and open-minded,” says Lana. “They taught me to put other people first, and how to do the right thing even when it was not easy.” Early on, her mother encouraged her to think about how words or actions make others feel. She emphasized that everyone comes from different places, and that we need to consider that when we work with people.
For Lana, her mother’s emphasis on seeing the humanity in others was influential in choosing a career helping young children. During her senior year at Lesley on a volunteer trip to Quito, Ecuador, Lana pursued her dream of volunteering with children abroad for the first time. There, she set out to work with the city’s street children, who bypass education and recreation in order to earn money in the local markets.
Through her interactions, Lana realized that these children had “never learned how to play.” Children need play; it’s how they learn, develop, and communicate. Quickly, Lana realized that through art therapy, she could build stronger connections with the kids. Lana drew family pictures with them and encouraged them to identify emotions the faces in their drawings. Before these drawing sessions, the kids could only identify “happy” and “sad” emotions, and some children could not even name those.
Shortly after this trip and graduating from Lesley, Lana landed a job as a Behavioral Para Professional in a school near her home. She worked with five children in their kindergarten classroom and created intervention strategies for their behaviors, running individual therapy sessions for each of them once or twice a week.
One child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) was initially difficult to work with—he would throw chairs, kick and hit, refuse work, or walk in the hall. Lana met with him a couple days a week, utilizing art therapy and sensory supports. She began to help improve his expressive language by modeling how to use “feeling words” in the moment. She also made him a “feelings faces chart.” He could go over to it, pick a picture, and say the word to express how he was feeling. One morning, Lana taught young boy the word “frustrated.” Later in the afternoon, he looked at her while doing a difficult reading sheet and said, “Miss Lana? I am frustrated.”
“I almost cried,” says Lana. “He had come so far.” This was a telling moment for her—the moment that confirmed creating environments where children with challenging behaviors can be happy and successful is her life’s mission.
Today, Lana is looking forward to her next challenge: working in an orphanage outside Kathmandu, Nepal through Volunteers for Peace. While living with a family and absorbing the local the culture, she’ll help children in the orphanage with daily living as well as social/emotional and cognitive development. She views the opportunity as yet another chance to make the world more beautiful.