For Shay Beider, touch has always been a part of healing.

While studying at UCLA as a pre-med student, Beider worked as a massage therapist, paying her way through school. She discovered many of her clients suffering through severe health issues, including cancer, responded well to massage.

As a student, she also witnessed a little girl wheeled into surgery who was absolutely terrified of undergoing anesthesia. That very moment is what inspired Beider’s idea of a foundation based on touch; she knew from experience that gently placed hands could help patients in a hospital setting.

“I myself was so amazed at the healing powers of touch to help people get through crises,” she said. “We will actually choose touch over food in early infancy. It’s ridiculously powerful and important.

“It’s also one of the best ways we can deliver our heart to another human being,” she said.

While in school, Beider co-wrote a grant, scoring nearly $1 million to start a healthy-touch program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in California.

From there, the idea of healing through touch expanded.

In 2005, Beider founded her Tucson, Arizona-based nonprofit, Integrative Touch for Kids (ITK), an organization dedicated to families whose children have special health and medical needs. Programs include hospital visits, weekend wellness retreats, healing retreats, hospital play-dates and more.

whole familyThe Whole Family

Beider’s initial experience of working with hospital patients is why ITK has a strong integrative approach to healing, which includes tremendous amounts of massage.

“It taught me you have to treat the whole family; all treatment models should be whole-family models,” said Beider. “It taught me that we needed to bring in all of these integrative medicine tools.”

Using a solid base of volunteers—ITK has only four paid staff—donations and more than 100 different integrative healing therapies, 3,500 people receive healing each year through the foundation in the Tucson community, including Banner Children’s Hospital.

Best of all, services are free to the families, said Katie Frazee, L.M.T., ITK’s program coordinator.

Throughout the year, families where  a family member is experiencing varying types of medical conditions receive therapeutic care through ITK, including those dealing with cancers, genetic conditions, autism, cerebral palsy and traumatic stress.

The idea to address the whole family is one of the optimum parts of the program, Frazee said.

In the medical field, the focus is solely on the patient’s wellness. Because a family unit’s wellness is just as important in ITK work, Beider has practitioners work in teams to ensure everyone is being taken care of during a difficult time.

“We never go in alone to work with a patient and family,” Beider said. “We work together.”

“It’s really a powerful way to work, especially when you’re working in difficult situations,” she added.

One of the most unique aspects of the program is how many modalities each practitioner has under her belt. Frazee, for example, is also a reiki level-two practitioner and has training in reflexology and shiatsu.

Watching the healing process happen before her eyes is one of the most amazing parts of ITK and the biggest reward as a massage therapist Frazee said.

“I knew when I went into massage that I was looking for models of care that were providing to communities that might not otherwise have access to this type of care,” she said. “I never wanted to be a spa therapist.”

whole familyHealing Circles & Retreats

In addition to visits in the hospitals, ITK also offers several other programs for families. Healing Circles and Healing Retreats, for example, allow caregivers and children with special needs to come together for fellowship and rejuvenation.

Each person invited to the retreats has a personalized schedule to follow based on his or her own health requirements and preferences.

Volunteer practitioners offer massage, bodywork, acupuncture, sound healing, energy therapies, play, equine therapy, and movement therapies like tai chi. Medical doctors and nurses attend as well, ensuring the safety of all participants involved.

In the summer of 2015, Brie Seward of Tucson attended a Healing Retreat soon after her oldest son, Sebastian, was diagnosed with autism.

For her, the retreat could not have come at a better time. She was learning how to handle Sebastian’s autism while also trying to mother an ultra premature newborn born at 25 weeks old.

On top of it, she discovered her husband had an affair. Seward decided to move back into her parents’ home in Tucson to get much-needed help in pushing forward in her life

The year of challenges left Seward and her parents emotionally and physically exhausted. During a hospital stay with her son, Seward said she daydreamed of ITK’s week-long retreat and what it could do for her family.

She applied, asking the program to accept her, the children and her parents. After careful consideration, ITK agreed to bringing in the whole extended family.

Seward said being taken to a ranch allowed the world to fade away and helped the family focus on personal healing time

For her, that meant crying—a lot.

“I think that myofascial release was the most invigorating. I felt like it was stirring up emotions that maybe I pushed down. I felt … opened up,” said Seward.

“I was on the table crying because I felt a healing hand on me,” she added. “Instead of my hands always on my children and pushing forward, someone was taking the time to comfort me.”

Her dad, who had never had a massage in his life, came back a changed man, Seward said. He planned on implementing yoga, regular massages and relaxation time into their hectic lives.

Once back home, the family even decided to purchase a home that looked very similar to the ranch where the ITK retreat had been held. The time for renewal opened their eyes to the possibilities of how different and healthy their lives could be, she said.

“It [was] an amazing eye-opener to integrative healing therapies,” Seward said of the retreat. “It’s for relaxation, rejuvenation and replenishment.”

whole familyLicense to Touch

Seeing the life-changing transformation of families experiencing any of the programs consistently puts things into perspective for massage therapists like Frazee. Even as someone who has a license to touch, witnessing the continual healing still seems miraculous, she said.

“Having a license to touch is very important,” said Frazee. “It’s certainly one of my most-used tools. The interaction is very palpable; that sense of melting [stress away] happens across the family.”

Even during hospital play-dates, the busiest of doctors will come out of their offices to dance with their patients and release ladybugs into the hospital’s serenity gardens.

“It’s such a brilliant way to support the nucleus,” said Frazee of ITK’s work. “The sense of community is beautiful. It’s an external family for people who may otherwise feel isolated.”

As founder, Beider credits her staff and volunteers for creating a successful program that benefits individuals who might otherwise suffer alone.

And at the end of the day, she recognizes the power that massage can have in clinical settings, and she hopes it spreads to other hospitals, too. The ultimate success, to her, would be for all hospitals to incorporate integrative healing.

“The touch piece has always been a central part of what we do,” said Beider. “It all started with touch and massage because that was my background and training. It’s just such an important, fundamental gift to be able to provide touch.”


Seraine Page is an award-winning journalist based out of the Seattle, Washington, area. She enjoys writing about health and wellness. Her work has been published in the Kitsap Sun, AAA Journey Magazine, Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal, Earth Island Journal and others. She wrote “Suffering in Silence: Migrant Farmworkers Need Massage” “Oncology Massage Brings Pain Relief to Cancer Patients” and “U.S. Veterans’ PTSD Helped with Massage,” among other articles, for