Elizabeth Cunningham is an art therapist who presents programs regularly for Tidewater Arts Outreach. Here, she recounts a March 2013 program at The Dwelling Place in Norfolk. Family homeless shelters are challenging places to present programs. Common areas are small, families are ‘in crisis’ by the time they end up in shelter, and children, moms and staff handle large stress-loads daily. For all of these reasons, it is difficult for TAO to allow observers to these programs. This report offers a glimpse into how our programs augment the lives of women and children in transition. Our goals of our programs in family shelters are to engage both parents and children…many parents are very young themselves, and often have not had much experience in the arts. We want to show them that quality family time can be had, for very little cost, through a variety of arts experiences.
I arrived 40 minutes early to set up… Families ate dinner and wandered in and out of the living room, curious about what was planned for the evening. After meeting the residents, I offered to write their names in calligraphy on gold paper/cards and found each person to be eager to receive one, and eager for their family members and friends to receive theirs was well. A “hum” of happiness and enthusiasm began to build in the house as residents anticipated beginning their Colorful Collage group. By 7:00, twelve residents chose to attend the Colorful Collage group; five adults and seven children. We opened by discussing how simple artwork can encourage and inspire us!
MaryAnn and Casey volunteered to tend to the younger children in order to give parents the time needed to attend the event. They had their hands full — and the children adored them. One tiny boy wanted Casey to never leave and to stay with him at the Dwelling Place!
Images surrounding poverty and homelessness are often dark and negative. But providing collage materials based in nature seemed to guide residents toward hopeful and bright images and associations. As residents worked on their collages, conversations turned peaceful and relaxed …they enjoyed the natural images they chose for their artwork, and affirmed one another’s artwork as well. Several residents spoke spontaneously of hopeful and realistic plans for the near future, and positive reflections on their own abilities as they made associations to the images they had chosen to put in their artwork.
Half-way through the event, cares of the day seems to have dissipated and there were pleasant smiles all around the room. Residents focused and worked thoughtfully and made decisions regarding what to include in their artwork, and what could be left out (as in life).
The opportunity to relax, enjoy a positive, nurturing and creative event met the emotional and psychological needs of adults and children. At the end of the evening, a quiet and more hopeful sense of peace hung in the air, no one was eager to leave, and several wanted more time to continue making collages. A few of the adult residents requested collage supplies to take back to their rooms in The Dwelling Place so they could make additional works of art. It was a special evening worth the wait.