Agustín Rodriguez Aké is founder of Caza Sonrisas, a social enterprise in Mexico that trains volunteers to deliver play therapy to children in hospitals. In 2012, he was selected as a Laureate Global Fellow through IYF's YouthActionNet® initiative.

Sometimes an event happens that changes you—and shapes your life—in ways you cannot imagine. When I was in my last year of elementary school, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. What happened over the next year and a half propelled me on a journey to help relieve the emotional pain experienced by children hospitalized with serious illnesses.

I grew up in the city of Mérida located on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. Over the course of my treatment, I was hospitalized several times and took part in various clinical studies and trials. Some were invasive, others not that much; but my physical appearance changed radically as a result of neck surgery. As I was transitioning into adolescence, the experience caused a great deal of emotional distress. I was frequently the target of insults by bullies. My weakened health made it hard to keep up with the demands of managing relationships with my classmates. Plus, I was shy and full of insecurities. In short, I learned through experience what it’s like to be a patient in a pediatric oncology department and the emotional price one pays as a child and later, a teenager.

When I entered high school, things changed. With the emotional support of family and health professionals, I started to accept myself more and fear rejection less. I experimented and connected to people more easily. I started to feel better emotionally and began to have a new level of social contact that I had never experienced before.

All these events set the groundwork for the beginning of Caza Sonrisas (Hunting Smiles) a year later, an experience that would redefine the role of cancer in my life. Through Caza Sonrisas, a social enterprise, hospitalized children, ages 3 to 16, learn techniques to effectively manage the negative emotions that come with illness and thus contribute to their own healing.

Our approach involves training college students to deliver ‘play therapy.’ These trained volunteers engage the children in creating handmade toys—hats, baskets, paintings—that enable them to revisit positive experiences and emotions. Our work is based on recent findings within various scientific fields (e.g., neuroscience, cognitive science, and psychology) that demonstrate the existence of Emotional Intelligence and its potential for furthering human development.

To date, more than 2,000 children in four hospitals have benefited from our play therapy techniques, delivered through more than 70 trained student volunteers. The children we work with report a 50 percent reduction in negative emotions, with a 25 percent increase in positive feelings. In the years to come, our goal is to transform how health care is delivered through equipping medical professionals and others with new tools and techniques for working with pediatric patients.

Learn more about Agustín’s work visit the Caza Sonrisas website.