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Project Background

Renaissance Village Art Therapy Trip #1 – October 2005

By Karla Leopold LMFT, ATR, Fine Artist

Leading a group of six Art Therapists to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Karla Leopold LMFT, ATR has returned to speak about the experience. For All Kids, the Rosie O’Donnell Children’s Foundation funded the endeavor. Members of the team included Paige Asawa, PhD, LMFT, ATR, Adrian Hall and Lesley Van Sloten (Art Therapy students at LMU), Narda Smith LMFT, ATR and Mary Walton MA.

The six art therapists arrived in New Orleans October 10th, facilitating art making to support a community’s efforts to recover from Hurricane Katrina. Their main focus was on the children and families. They were able to use art processes and creativity to help the evacuees and children to express their recent traumas and transitions.

When members of the For All Kids Foundation began working with the children at the shelters, it became apparent that the children’s emotional needs were not being met. The majority of these children had been traumatized by their experiences. Many suffered from loss of home, family, pets, community and school. Some had experienced horrific circumstances and observed more than a child could process. Many had lived in multiple shelters and attended multiple schools. This is when I received the call from a friend in Washington DC asking if I could help.

The week we arrived was the week the main shelter, Baton Rouge River Center housing up to 4,000 people, was slated to close. Three weeks prior to the closing a cow pasture had been purchased by FEMA and approximately six hundred 22-30 feet, single wide travel trailers were moved to the town of Baker, 10 miles north of Baton Rouge. The trailers sit 8 feet apart and all you see is dirt, dust and rows and rows of white trailers.

Each trailer housed up to six people with an average of four per trailer. The city of Baker swelled with a new small city (named by the people Renaissance Village) and 2,000 new evacuees. The transfer took place in less than a week with little foresight or planning. The new city is located far from any stores or conveniences. The post office is miles away. There is no transportation to and from the location. There was one small main tent for eating and gathering. There was little security. The Red Cross is no longer involved and this is solely a FEMA project. The people from FEMA were overworked and understaffed.

Our job was to work with the children and we had lots of children to work with!!! Many were not enrolled in school. There was no day care and no facilities to house it. A group of 20 from middle schools didn’t have a bus for pickup. There were over 130 children there with nothing to do. We couldn’t get the art supplies out fast enough. We set up in the tent where everything else took place and worked with 40 to 70 children a day. When we arrived, the children would surround our car to help carry supplies and hug us. They seemed so needy and wounded. Our day ended at 7pm because there we were, exhausted and there were no lights in the tent.

Art is a natural form of communication for children because it is easier for them to express themselves visually rather than verbally. This is particularly true for children who have experienced a traumatic event. An opportunity to draw, paint and construct with an art therapist can help them to communicate difficult issues, reduce stress, and reconcile feelings. Children who have experienced a catastrophic disaster, such as the hurricane, need support from adults to avoid long-term emotional problems.

The art activities we used were most often non-structured (due to the large number of children) and limited only by the materials. We would ask them to draw, paint or construct anything they would like. The art we received was amazing. The children, ranging from the age of 3-18 years, would often take what they had kept inside and put it out in the art. This would provide them power over the experience that had made them feel powerless.

They would often draw or create their lost pets. We constructed many safe places for the lost animals. Creating their lost animals would allow them to talk to and about the loss thus providing them a form of closure.

We saw destroyed houses, lots of muddy water, dark clouds and wind, families separated, Katrina in many forms plus much more. We will be displaying the art for the public in a traveling art show.

I watched one 7-year old boy create a dark downward spiral and from my work with severely depressed clients, I became alerted by his art. I asked him what he had drawn and he replied “the drain”. I asked him to draw him on the spiral and he said he wasn’t sure he could because he was very close to going down the drain. He could draw his friends first and their houses that weren’t completely destroyed. After drawing them he decided to include himself but much closer to the drain. My heart stopped and I asked if there was anything we could do for the guy in the picture to help him and he thought for a while. He replied he might not go down the drain and drew a boat to save his figure. He then asked to draw something else and proceeded to draw an erupting volcano. Through the art he was able to turn his powerlessness to anger and express it in a constructive form. If only for a few minutes, this young boy was able to tell his story and be heard.

We had so many experiences like this one and so little time and resources to meet such a great need. There are so many things wrong with what is going on in the evacuees’ communities. We too can feel so powerless. We were able to serve a large number of children in the short time we were there but so many children need help. I like to think of things as problems to be solved and in this case we can focus on the needs of the children, the future.

Rosie’s For All Kids Foundation has started Project Katrina to focus on the needs of the children. Their primary focus is to build temporary and permanent day care centers in evacuee communities and provide emergency relief for the kids. My team of art therapists has become a piece of Project Katrina. We have been told that funding for further trips to work with the children will be a priority. I will also be consulting with the Foundation on how the needs of the children can best be served. Any contribution made to the organization goes directly to the kids.

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