The year 2020 began with a sense of celebration and promise. Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona had just passed a milestone: 25 years of transforming children’s trauma through artistic expression. Its staff, supporters and the families it serves were anticipating continued growth in programming, and the excitement of a completely remodeled, state-of-the-art headquarters in central Phoenix.
Then the pandemic hit, upending plans and preventing the very essence of this organization’s mission: person-to-person connection through the arts, and a healing process that builds strength, resilience and confidence in children whose worlds have been shattered by abuse and neglect.
Program Director Jessica Flowers and her team started reaching out to 48 partner agencies, shelters and treatment centers.
“It was important to be at the forefront of responding,” she said. “We really believe Free Arts is a vital service for the children we serve. We asked, ‘How is this affecting you? What will your kids need during this time?’ ” She prepared herself for the worst: Maybe, with so much disruption and change, these organizations had enough to deal with. Maybe Free Arts would have to take a pause — or completely refocus its mission.
“We found the opposite,” she says. “Everyone echoed that Free Arts was more important now because of everything that’s going on. Children need a creative outlet. They need to use the arts in any way — songwriting, poetry, visual arts, creative movement — to get out the icky, scary feelings. When you’re isolated … you have even more of a need to know, understand and remember there are people out there who care about you.”
The challenge was finding a safe way to allow these children to connect with loving, adult volunteers and the trauma-informed arts activities that have proven so transformative.
“We came up with a four-tiered approach,” Flowers says. “Phase I (videos, take-home project) were huge. We served more than 3,000 children during that [quarantine] time.”
Over the summer, when it became clear “this would last longer than we thought,” new elements came into the mix. Working in conjunction with Florence Crittenden, an in-person multicultural camp for 25 kids was offered. A virtual theater camp online offered performance opportunities.
An online Caregiver Community allowed foster parents and staff from the group homes, shelters and treatment centers to come together to connect, create and combine resources. As the summer ended, Free Arts was gearing up to send volunteer mentors/teacher artists to partner agencies and allow a limited number of children to come to the Free Arts site on weekends.
An alumni program, established for those who have participated in Free Arts programs and want to stay engaged with the organization, has actually grown more robust during COVID. Teens and young adults ages 14-25 maintain a virtual connection to mentor adults and to each other. Some are given opportunities to apply for paid apprenticeships or to work for the organization.
“It keeps them involved in that caring, creative Free Arts community and continues to promote their resilience while developing leadership and life skills,” Flowers says.
Kristen Morelli, program coordinator at Free Arts, is an alumna whose life has come full circle; she now gives back to the organization that helped her as a child. Her first experience with Free Arts was when she was 11 years old and living in a homeless shelter with her mother and sisters. She talks about her encounter as a life-changing moment.
The project was to make a 3D plaster mask. She remembers being reluctant to participate. “I had anxiety about laying still, and I had low self-esteem as I didn’t like the way I looked. I was able to work through some of these things, and I created a white tiger mask from a mold of my face.”
This was a new beginning for Morelli. She was able to see how she could cast herself in a new light and confront some of the emotional challenges she was facing. She recognized the ways art could bring clarity to her life, allowing her to trust others and start trusting herself as well. Now Morelli helps children of Free Arts conquer their own fears.
Art has the power to transform, and is especially helpful for children, because they don’t have the verbal skills to express their feelings. Creating art can help them communicate their emotions in a safe way.
“The process of creating transcends their experiences and helps them reflect on their lives without judgment,” explains Free Arts founder Margaret Beresford, who now serves as alumni support liaison. She is also a board-certified art therapist and a licensed professional counselor. “We tell them there are no mistakes in art, and there is not just one right answer. It allows them to find their voice and helps them heal.”
The coordinators at Free Arts are quick to emphasize that the mentorship component is just as important as the art, because mentors build connections through quality time with the kids. Mentors do not need to be artists themselves. They are trained in trauma-informed care and best practices of ACES (Adverse Childhood Experience Study). After a one-hour orientation and six-and-a-half-hour training, the mentors are taught how to use art to reach through the barriers and help kids heal.
Their role is to support the kids through the process by helping the children look past their current circumstances and envision a different future and trajectory for their lives.
Free Arts cover a wide range of artistic expression, from visual arts to music, dance, theater and mixed media. The spoken word program has been an especially powerful addition for older kids and teens because it gives them an outlet to tell their stories in powerful and transformative ways.
There are always opportunities to help at Free Arts, from becoming a mentor to helping with administrative tasks. All it takes is a kind and empathetic heart. And as many of the mentors can attest, helping others is often the best way to heal yourself.
More ways to help Free Arts
• Create and mail in Affirmation Cards for children! Free Arts includes homemade affirmation cards in all take-home packages for children, and the goal is to distribute 10,000 of these this fall. Cut a piece of cardstock to approximately 3 inches by 5 inches, decorate it with an encouraging message and artwork and mail it to the Free Arts office. Find sample messages and instructions here.
• Donate art supplies. Visit the Free Arts wish list on Amazon to purchase art supplies needed for take-home projects, or send Free Arts a virtual gift card it can use to purchase critical supplies.
• Tune in. Free Arts offers online videos that walk children and families through creative coping tools. They are free on the organization’s YouTube channel and available to anyone looking for ideas on ways to use arts to relieve stress.