"For me, (art therapy) is like another home," says the 15-year-old, who created a book to commemorate his sister, who collapsed and died while playing basketball. "You can come here and talk."
That’s what Gwenn Waldman wanted when she started Art Therapy Connection (ATC) six years ago. After launching a pilot art therapy program, she saw first-hand how students can change when they’re offered an outlet for their emotions and some personalized attention. Now the non-profit holds programs at four grade schools and one high school in low-income communities throughout Chicago, as well as an expressive arts program in the summer.
"So many of the kids we’ve worked with are so angry, frustrated and some feel like they’re invisible," says Waldman, the executive director of program development for ATC. "Children tend to act out on their feelings because they don’t have the verbal skills to articulate how they’re doing. Art therapy helps kids expel their feelings in a useful way. We find so many of the kids labeled as bad kids or troublemakers don’t behave that way in art therapy."
Since only a limited number of students can participate in ATC, Waldman focuses on finding students suffering from problems like conduct disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, but who aren’t receiving any help. "I have kids who have seen people murdered. I have kids tell me they’re used to the sound of gun shots because it’s always around where they live," says Waldman.
Of course, getting students to open up isn’t easy. Waldman warns the interns working with her in the schools not to expect the "flood gates" to open until the end of February or March, even though they’ve been working with the students since October. Some students don’t talk for three or four months, and for others it takes years.
Although the process takes time, Waldman knows it works. High school students have told her they’re pregnant. Others break down after holding in their anger because of bullying. Sometimes students reveal they’ve been cutting themselves or that they suffer from abuse.
ATC gives students a range of ways to let out their emotions, from privately journaling to publicly writing on the Anger and Frustration Wall.
The laid-back and relaxing atmosphere of art therapy makes it feel like a safe haven, says Regis Trotter, a 14-year-old seventh-grader who has participated in art therapy for the past two years. Regis finds that he can go to the room to calm down after arguments and talk about issues bothering him. "It’s fun because they make you feel comfortable," he says. "They don’t put any kind of stress on you."
Although students miss class once a week in order to attend art therapy, the program works together with the school to ensure that the students don’t fall behind. According to Carolyn Collins, the executive director of business development for ATC and an art therapist, the hour students attend ATC every week is well worth the results. "Our program offers these students relief … They can de-clutter their brain so they can go back and effectively learn," says Collins.
Of course even the classroom where art dots the walls and classical music plays isn’t free from the challenges of the outside world. ATC must raise or find all of the money it uses to support the program. The organization hopes to eventually find enough money to extend the art therapy program into even more schools.
Although Waldman can’t provide therapy to every student who needs it, she hopes those she has taught will always remember what they’ve learned. "You have to remember that you’ve got that good inside of you," Waldman tells her students. "And you’re not going to give it away."
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