By Jessica Flowers, Program Director, Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona
National Mentoring Resource Center
Karen pulls up to the suburban four-bedroom home in West Phoenix, opens her trunk and pulls out two green canvas bags that read “Free Arts” on the side. She looks up and notices a small face pressed against the glass in the front window. The front door swings open and a staff member from the foster care group home unlocks the screen from the inside, letting Karen into the house. Immediately, two grade school aged girls run up and ask, “What are we making today, Miss Karen?” “You’ll see!” Karen replies with a twinkle in her eye. “Want to help me set out the supplies?” The girls agree and set to work. Soon, five other girls trickle into the kitchen area, some with wet hair fresh from the shower, others already in their pajamas. They gather around the large dining table, picking up supplies and asking excited questions, “Are these for us?” “What are these?” “Ooo, shiny!” one exclaims about some stickers fresh from the package. “I’m new here, who are you?” one asks.
As they settle, Karen explains, “I’m Karen, your weekly mentor from Free Arts. I come every Monday night at 6:00 pm to make art with all of you. I’m a volunteer so I don’t get paid. I come because I care about you all and love being creative with you. Tonight, we’re going to make treasure boxes and decorate them with the traits that we each have that we consider treasures. But before we start, who can remind us of our expectations?” A hand shoots up in the air. A young girl about 13 answers “Be brave! Be respectful and . . . there’s no mistakes in art!” “That’s right!” Karen replies and the girls dig into the materials, talking excitedly about what words and images best describe the traits they treasure about themselves.
Karen has been visiting this foster care group home for the last six weeks as part of the Weekly Mentor Program through Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona. Each week, for a total of sixteen weeks, Karen will sift through the Weekly Mentor Curriculum mindfully crafted by Free Arts staff members and past volunteer mentors and choose an art project that will allow the girls she mentors to feel safe and express themselves. The Weekly Mentor Program focuses on providing strong, caring adults to groups of children who have experienced trauma while providing those mentors the tools and supplies they need to bring the arts to the children in their groups. The objective is to help children build resilience by connecting them with adults who care and activities that develop their skills and sense of self. This program model, Art + Mentors = Resilience, is at the heart of every Free Arts program.
The Free Arts model is based on resilience research from the Harvard Center for the Developing Child that states that positive adult relationships and active skill building are integral to resilience building in children. Art is a way to help children express their thoughts and feelings, regulate their brain activity, and understand their identity. Creating art together can help build and strengthen relationships between mentors and mentees as well as between peers. The impact has been clear throughout Free Arts’ 25-year history during which time more than 125,000 children have accessed Free Arts’ services.
Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona was founded in 1993 after a young art therapist, Margaret Beresford, met the founder of the original Free Arts in Los Angeles. Ms. Beresford envisioned an organization where children who had experienced extreme trauma, including abuse, neglect, and homelessness, could engage in the arts under the gentle guidance of caring adults and begin to process their trauma and heal. In that first year, the Weekly Mentor Program served 50 children at five partner agencies. Now, the Weekly Mentor program serves close to 800 children a year at more than 80 partner sites. Three other programs were launched over the past 25 years: Free Arts Days, one day events hosted at arts and culture venues in town that allow children to safely engage in the arts alongside adult volunteers; the Professional Artist Series, where paid teaching artists help children and teens build skills in a particular art form and showcase those skills in a public performance or exhibition; and the Camp Series, a group of multi-week day camps for more than 200 children and teens that allow participants to use their voices and new-found art skills to share their personal stories with an audience though music, dance, drama and poetry.
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