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Arts can make difference in health care

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Jill Sonke

Professor, School of Theatre and Dance, and Director, Center for the Arts in Healthcare
College of Fine Arts

Jill Sonke has connected two seemingly disparate passions in her career as an educator and artist. “Once, nearly 20 years ago while I was injured, I stumbled on a way to deal with the pain,” she said. “Unable to move, I spent much of each day with classical music playing, visualizing myself dancing, and it made me feel so much better. I experienced far less pain, and I felt the joy that I was used to experiencing when I danced.”

Late in high school, Sonke shifted her career goals away from medicine when she discovered modern dance. Sonke studied dance at Interlochen Arts Academy and Florida State University. She went on to New York to pursue a professional career as a dancer. It was years later, when she joined the dance faculty at UF, that she connected the two disciplines as she helped to develop the Arts in Medicine program at Shands and the Center for the Arts in Healthcare in the College of Fine Arts. She has an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree in arts and health care and a master’s degree in human services.

As director of the Center for the Arts in Healthcare, Sonke educates students of the arts and health sciences in how to use the arts to enhance health care settings, to improve health outcomes, and to improve the health care experience for both patients and caregivers. She develops and teaches courses, conducts research, and consults nationally and internationally for new arts in health care initiatives.

“We have 150 student artists volunteering at Shands each semester,” Sonke said. “They help patients of all ages and diagnoses to make art of all kinds, including visual arts, music, dance, theatre and writing. They facilitate workshops with groups of patients and family members and they work with patients individually at the bedside.”

Through a program called “ AIM for Africa,” Sonke leads teams of UF students, professional artists and medical practitioners to implement hands-on arts and health care initiatives in several African nations, including in genocide survivor villages in Rwanda. The cultural exchange and service learning program addresses cultural and health needs in the local communities while providing students with life-changing learning experiences. She also leads teams into rural and underserved areas of Florida, delivering important health messages through the arts.

Sonke serves as president of the Society for the Arts in Healthcare and has received more than 45 grants for her programs and research at Shands and UF.

“I never imagined 20 years ago that the connection I was making between my art and my health would lead me to such a fulfilling career. Arts in Healthcare is now a well-established field, and I feel that I have found home.”

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