Art with Heart

Emma Astrike-Davis brightens patient rooms with color and love

In the six years Emma Astrike-Davis has run her nonprofit, Art for Hospice, she has been amazed again and again by the power of a simple gift.

The 17-year-old Cary Academy student recruits students to paint cheerful canvases, which are then donated to hospice patients and nursing home residents — many of whom have few personal mementos.

“Meeting with the hospice patients and nursing home residents, seeing the joy that they get out of a simple painting,” Emma said. “… I’ve seen that illness and suffering are universal, but so is the compassion behind caring about another person and wanting to give them something.”

In May 2008, Emma was “Principal for a Day” at her previous school, Montessori Community School in Durham, and ordinary wasn’t on her agenda.

“I wanted to make my day stand out,” she said. During visits to her great-grandmother at the Brian Center in Durham, Emma had seen a surprising number of patient rooms with bare walls. She wanted to change that.  

Emma, then in the sixth grade, purchased blank canvases using donations from family and friends. With help and encouragement from the actual head of school, David Carman, she then rallied teachers and fellow students to create 24 paintings, which were donated to Heartland Hospice in Raleigh.

The following year Emma expanded her project to two schools. Then in 2010, a $600 grant from the Town of Cary enabled Emma to secure a website and 501(c)3 status — both vital to fundraising efforts. From there the project “just took off,” as Emma put it.

She estimates that more than 1,500 paintings have been distributed at facilities in North Carolina, Florida and Argentina, where Emma participated in an exchange program last year.

More than a dozen participating schools involve hundreds of student artists. Corporate grants and an annual fundraiser at California Pizza Kitchen help pay for canvases.

“When I first started it in the sixth grade, I didn’t even expect it to be an annual event for Montessori Community School,” Emma said. “That was my hope for it, that it would happen every year at that one school, but I wasn’t thinking of anything more than that.”

In May, The Prudential Foundation selected Emma as one of America’s Top 10 Youth Volunteers of 2013. The award was announced during a Washington, D.C., ceremony for the year’s top 100 youth volunteers — two from each state. The national honor came with a $5,000 personal prize and $5,000 for the recipient’s charity of choice. This was in addition to the $1,000 Prudential gave Emma for winning the North Carolina honor.  

Emma called the trip an incredible experience. “It wasn’t just the special treatment,” she said. “It was being around a hundred young people from around the country who were involved in service activities. Their creativity and their dedication were just phenomenal.”

Her dedication to community service was instilled in Emma by her grandmother, Colleen Astrike. “She was such an avid volunteer in her own community, particularly for her church, her library,” Emma said. “She really instilled in me the value of community service and doing more for those around me.

“She was probably my biggest fan. I used to go with her and we’d have Grandma and Grandpa weeks in the summer. We’d go to the nursing homes (in Fayetteville) and donate the paintings.” When her grandmother passed away in November, memorials went to Art for Hospice.

In addition to distributing paintings and fundraising, the willowy teen is an avid runner — logging 6 to 8 miles a day. She runs track and cross-country for Cary Academy and plays flute in the band. She is looking forward to her senior year this fall and her duties as co-president of the National Honor Society and vice president of the Key Club.

Eventually she would like a career in medicine, but that path requires Art for Hospice to function without her. Several distant schools have already established independent connections with local nursing homes and hospice facilities. Emma hopes to replicate that model for all schools participating in Art for Hospice.

But it is hard to imagine that she won’t continue with her nonprofit in some fashion. She told of a recent trip to distribute paintings made by elementary students, and you could hear the awe in her voice.

“The paintings were,” she paused, “a little abstract. I was thinking ‘Hmm. I might need to recycle (some of these).’ We got to the very last one, and it (may have been) some trees, but they kind of looked like mushrooms. …We went into the last room, and she had nothing on her wall. There was a good spot for it, but it was not the most attractive painting. But she just looked at the painting and said, ‘It’s beautiful. Thank you so much.’

“That really meant a lot to me. This 6- or 7-year-old child had made this woman really happy with a painting of mushrooms. That’s what Art for Hospice is all about.”

Details about Art for Hospice can be found at

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