Boy devotes a year to creating stained-glass tribute to a friend at Penn hospice [photos]

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A University of Pennsylvania hospital in Philadelphia has installed new stained glass windows created by a boy as a bar mitzvah project.

He was inspired by a friend who died at its inpatient hospice center.

The Penn Hospice Center at Rittenhouse Square just reopened its new children’s room, intended for children and teenagers visiting loved ones nearing the end of their lives.

What had been a rather dreary but functional room is now brightened with new furniture, fresh paint, and computers. The room will be used for everything from bereavement counseling, homework when hospice becomes almost a second home, and playing Xbox.

“Instead of a plain wall with pictures, let’s pick a theme and make it engaging,” recalled Jeri Timm, the director of volunteer services at the Penn Medicine Rittenhouse campus, of the redecorating. “We picked a jungle theme.”

A rainforest mural extends across two walls, and on a third is an 8-foot stained glass window, made by David Learner-Wagner, 13.

“A good friend Lois Ruth was into stained glass,” he said. “She told my mom she had cancer, and came here towards the end.”

Ruth was a stained glass artist and a student of David’s mother, an art teacher. She became a family friend, frequently having dinner with the Learner-Wagners at an Italian restaurant in Conshohocken. David had known her since he was 6 months old.

“She was pleasant, optimistic,” said David said. “So much about her I found interesting. She was a counselor at Frankford High School, she played the organ, was a choir director of the Philadelphia district.”

“When she was getting older, she did stained glass work. She had hundreds of glass pieces everywhere,” he said. “Her house was filled with music and glass and cats.”

When she died last year, her house was still filled with uncut sheets of colored glass, and all her cutting and soldering tools. In Ruth’s memory, David used her material to design and construct a window. It took him a year to complete six panels. Fitted together, they depict a jungle scene.

He had never made stained glass before, and Ruth died before David could learn any of her techniques.

“She never assumed I would be interested,” he said. “It takes work and patience. It’s not something that 10- or 11-year-olds have a lot of.”

The renovated room features a quote from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a pioneering psychiatrist who specialized in grief and wrote “On Death and Dying”:

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.

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