The word “hospital” often brings ambivalent feelings, particularly for those people who, for one reason or another, spend much of their time in them. The sterile white walls, the machines, the gowns, the food?”the institutional environment lacks all the comforts of home.

However, thanks to the creative efforts of a handful of Riverside-Brookfield High School students, the environment for the residents of extended care center of Edward Hines Jr. V.A. Hospital has become just a bit brighter.

As part of a large-scale effort to make their patients’ stays more comfortable, hospital representatives invited members of the RB Art Club to paint a mural in their cafeteria. According to Jean Riley, a nurse educator in the extended care center and the chair of the committee instituting the reform project, a survey made clear that residents felt the building’s appearance was the first thing they would like to see changed. So they began with the cafeteria, a large, blank room where many of the approximately 80 residents gather three times a day for their meals.

“We want to create a more homelike environment for our patients, to tailor our services to fit better with what their life was like at home,” Riley said. “The program involves more than just aesthetics but, when we surveyed people, their first interest was in redecorating.”

The RB Art Club, which has been involved in multiple community projects in the past, immediately agreed to do the mural and a group of about 10 students, led by Jonathan Grice, art teacher and Fine Arts Department chairman, began brainstorming ideas for the scene they would create.

According to Grice, the group took its inspiration from the rehabilitation center that is next to the cafeteria and visible through a glass wall. The center is basically a mock street scene, with a car for patients to practice getting in and out, grass and cement areas to practice walking on different surfaces, and other common settings to help prepare patients to return home.

“The original plan was to embody that same sort street scene design and carry it through the cafeteria,” Grice said. “As we were getting ideas, it morphed into an outdoor cafe.”

The resulting mural, finished after about two months of weekly after-school trips to the hospital, depicts the outside of a brick cafe, complete with a red and white awning, a flower box, shrubbery and fluttering butterflies. There are also two light posts, at the tops of which Riley said would soon be installed working street lights, to complete the effect.

The cafe is only a third of the work the club will eventually do in the cafeteria, however. Grice and Riley said the club plans to return sometime during the next school year to complete panels on either side of the mural, where they plan to continue with the street motif.

Jane Arvis, who will be a senior at RB next year, said she is excited about returning to finish their work next year. Although it was hard for her to find time to contribute to the mural, she said she enjoyed watching the scene evolve from a draft on a piece of paper.

“It started out as a really simple idea, but then we started going back over it and putting in more details, making it more life-like,” she said. “It made it much more interesting than just a flat design.”

Recent RB graduate Christy Kral also said she enjoyed the creative process of making the mural, but added that the part of the project that surprised her the most was the response from the hospital’s residents. As the club finished up its work for the day, residents would begin coming into the cafeteria for dinner, she said, and many would compliment their work.

“I didn’t expect as much feedback as we got,” she said. “They were all really nice and supportive, telling us how much they enjoyed having us there. Some even sat and watched us paint.”

According to Riley, that excitement is still around, more than a month since the mural was finished.

“Everybody?”the staff and, especially, the patients?”is enthusiastic about it,” she said. “They’re in the dining room three times a day, and they get to see it all the time. There are a few who just won’t stop talking about it.”