Child life program launches in Bismarck

"We are bringing smiles to kids during potentially traumatic times"

Child life program launches in Bismarck

Sanford Bismarck recently launched western North Dakota’s first child life program.

The new team consists of two full-time staff members: Ashley Renton, a certified child life specialist, and Bobbi Jo Vandal, a board-certified music therapist. They work in tandem with doctors and nurses to give pediatric patients and their families the best experience possible.

“We are so excited to bring child life and music therapy to our pediatric patients and their families,” said Nicole Christian, manager of inpatient pediatrics at Sanford Bismarck.

Donors to the Sanford Health Foundation’s Above and Beyond campaign made the new program possible.

“We’ve been working on bringing child life services to Bismarck for several years now, and seeing it become a reality and knowing the positive impact it will have on children is priceless,” Christian said. “We are so grateful for the community members who made this possible.”

‘We are bringing smiles’

In November, Bismarck native Ashley Renton became Sanford Bismarck’s first certified child life specialist. She calls it a dream come true to work with pediatric patients and families in her hometown.

Renton first heard about child life while volunteering at Sanford Children’s Fargo during her first year of college.

One day, Renton observed a child life specialist working with a young girl before a procedure. She saw the little girl go from being anxious to calm as she learned what to expect in the operating room.

From that moment on, Renton was determined to become a child life specialist herself. She studied child development at North Dakota State University and returned to Sanford Children’s Fargo to intern with the child life team.

After graduating, Renton moved home to Bismarck and worked in respite care. When she heard Sanford Bismarck was launching a child life program, she jumped at the opportunity to join the team.

In her first month, Renton already has made a difference. She uses developmentally appropriate interventions including therapeutic play, preparation and education to reduce fear, anxiety and pain for pediatric patients.

When a child life specialist walks into the room, an IV becomes the world’s tiniest straw, and a syringe transforms into a paintbrush. They read books to help kids understand what’s wrong and play familiar games to make them feel at ease.

“The overall goal is for me to have a positive impact on every pediatric patient that comes to our hospital, along with their family,” Renton said. “With donor support, we are bringing smiles to kids during potentially traumatic times.”

The power of music

Bobbi Jo Vandal, the first board-certified music therapist at Sanford Health, brings her passion for music to Bismarck.

“It always amazes me what a powerful tool music can be,” Vandal said.

Music therapy aims to help children manage stress, express feelings, improve communication, reduce pain and promote developmental goals through playing, creating and listening to music.

Vandal studied music therapy at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass. To earn board certification, she also completed 1,200 hours of clinical work and a board-certification exam. Before joining the child life team at Sanford Bismarck, Vandal ran a private practice in Bismarck.

She now roams the hospital with her guitar and a special cart filled with instruments in tow. Her presence has already been felt by pediatric patients and their families.

Vandal has helped soothe a newborn during a blood draw, motivate a young patient to start walking, assist a patient to improve coping skills through songwriting and much more.

In addition to her work as a music therapist, Vandal is working to become a certified child life specialist and expand the services she can offer.

“Through the generosity of our amazing donors, we’ve been able to provide comfort, laughter, ease of procedures, improvement of therapeutic and developmental goals, pain reduction and bonding with families during a very difficult time for these young people,” Vandal said. “It’s an invaluable resource and service for families.”

The Above and Beyond campaign is accepting donations to help support a $3 million endowment to sustain the nonbilled child life program in Bismarck. To learn more, visit

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Posted In Bismarck, Children's, Foundation, News