Painting with a Purpose

Rachel Howard is taking a couple of gap years before applying to medical school. In the meantime, she has found a way to combine her love of art and her interest in medicine by painting windows for patients staying in the Children’s Hospital during the holidays.

The walls in the N.C. Children’s Hospital are brightly colored, decorated with scenes and characters to brighten the stays of the young patients. But lately some new characters have begun to appear on interior windows of patient rooms – Elsa, Batman, Rapunzel, Spongebob Squarepants – in picturesque winter scenes.

The artist is Rachel Howard, a recent graduate of UNC who works by day as a technician in the lab of Tim Wiltshire, PhD, an associate professor in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

“Tim is an incredible mentor and strongly encouraged me to continue pursuing art alongside research,” Howard said. “He gave me the push I needed. None of this would have happened without him!”  

After a day of pipetting, Howard packs up her supplies and heads to the upper floors of the Children’s Hospital to paint.

Howard says she has been interested in art “since I was old enough to hold a crayon.” An encouraging high school, a term at Governor’s School for visual arts, and a small scholarship to pursue arts helped cement her interest in painting.

“I’ve always loved art and had a passion for medicine, so I’ve been trying to find a way to bring the two of them together”

A major in nutrition as an undergraduate UNC, she also pursued minors in both art and chemistry. After graduating in May, she decided to take a couple of gap years before applying to medical school.

To fill her time, Howard started a small side project decorating storefront windows on Franklin Street.

“I didn’t want to do it as a side business – I have enough to live on, I didn’t really need more – but I wanted to find some way I can way to keep doing art and make it more meaningful, and do some good in the community,” she says.

In a lot of ways, painting in the storefronts felt like being on a stage, and it was the kids that seemed most to enjoy watching Howard work.

“When you paint for a store it almost like performing and it’s very interactive. People stop as they walked by, and I noticed how much the kids liked it. They would laugh and giggle, crowd around and point.”

That’s when she had an idea.

“It was the holiday season, and people seemed to really enjoy watching the painting come together, but what about the children who have to spend the season in the hospital? It would be really cool to go door to door and paint for them, to bring that experience to them.”

When she was a student Howard had been involved in Artheels, an organization that works with UNC Hospitals Volunteer Services to bring artistic activities to patients in the hospital – even if just to sit with someone for an hour and color. It was through this work that she met Dawn Woody, Volunteer Services Coordinator.

Howard reached out to Dawn about bringing her window painting to the patients in the N.C. Children’s Hospital.

“Rachel is just an amazing young woman, and she will make a great doctor, but she is an amazingly talented young woman too,” says Dawn. “She came to me with this idea, and I thought it was just fantastic.”

To fund the project, Howard did more painting.  

Howard’s co-workers had seen her work on Franklin Street and asked her to decorate the window in their lab. She decided to turn the money she received back into supplies for window painting.

“When I do these windows, I ask if they can help me in some way with this project,” says Howard.  “If you want to help with supplies, or provide art supplies for the children, I will paint your window. One hundred percent of the money I have received for painting these windows has gone back into this project. And not only have I been able to raise all the money I need for Paint with Purpose but I was able to raise it all within UNC.”

Paintings that have helped fund the project in the Children’s Hospital can be found on the first, fourth and fifth floor of the Genetic Medicine Building, as well as in the School of Pharmacy.

Some of the money has been used to fund Howard’s own art supplies but she has found a way to help the children create their own art too.

Howard used proceeds from a window commission on Franklin Street to buy 26 large 64-count boxes of crayons with the idea that she would give out the crayons to patients on Christmas. When she began working on a window in the department of pharmacology on the fourth floor of the Genetic Medicine Building, she told them about her plan for the crayons.

“They asked me how many more I needed. When I told them I needed 46 more, they went to the Super Target in Durham who then donated all 46. So now I have enough crayons to give a box to every child on the fifth, sixth and seventh floor, 72 boxes in all.”

In the meantime, Howard is brightening the halls of the N.C. Children’s hospital with her scenes and characters, and encouraging the children to get in on the action.

One patient saw Howard painting on the window and asked if she could help. Rachel taught her a few techniques and the two painted side by side at the window for more than an hour.

The patient’s mother was touched, saying that “I haven’t seen her smile like that in a long time.”

For Howard, it’s these experiences that make the Paint with Purpose project so worthwhile.  “These families are very sweet and it touches my heart to see happy art and these paintings can make them.”

Sponsors of the Paint with Purpose project include the Center for Pharmacogenomics and Individualized Therapy (1st floor GMB), the department of genetics (5th floor GMB), the department of pharmacology (4th floor GMB), the division of pharmacotherapy and experimental therapeutics (UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy) and the Durham Super Target.

To learn more about how you can donate you time and skills to UNC Hospitals, please contact Volunteer Services at or call (984) 974-4793.

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