I had the privilege of participating in Project Haiti in May with the nonprofit ArtReach Foundation. As a registered art therapist, I helped facilitate a two-week program at the Ecole Mixtre des Sibert in Port-au-Prince to train teachers, their students and community leaders.
The ArtReach mission is to heal and aid the development of children who have experienced war, violence, or natural disaster through the expressive arts of music, drama and dance.
ArtReach is an established leader in the therapeutic use of creative arts, having now helped more than a million children with projects in Bosnia, Lebanon, Jordan and the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Art therapy is a creative, nonthreatening venue for children dealing with trauma. Children are not only less articulate verbally but are often afraid to express themselves, so the metaphors of art are a powerful, direct means to deal with the intense emotions of horror, loss, sadness, anger, and isolation.
Increased self-awareness, decreased anxiety, energy and empowerment increase a child’s self-worth and confidence and help reconcile emotional conflict. This improved well-being increases their chances for a successful, fulfilling life. Any age can benefit from art therapy.
I have been to Bosnia twice with ArtReach. Most everyone I worked with there saw a family member murdered or raped during the war. They experienced the unthinkable. And while these trips were intensely memorable, my recent trip to Haiti has affected my life much more deeply. My Haitian “students” made me consider what is important in life. Having nothing, they know how to have fun with nothing! I haven’t turned on the TV since I’ve been home.
I was shocked at the living conditions I saw while riding to the school from the Port-au-Prince airport, and again at the contrast provided at the Sibert School where Shadrick St. Louis was headmaster. It is a safe haven of hibiscus blooms, fruit trees and vegetables, a luscious oasis of hope in this, the ruins of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,
As a witness to the life-changing effects of art therapy for many years as a therapist, I was still amazed at the response of one adult participant who presented us with a model house he created out of salvaged cardboard, construction paper and glue after attending five days of our workshop.
He cut intricate windows, doors and rooms for his house and had written Imagination Healing Center over the front door with the ArtReach logo above. This was his dream for Haiti; a place where Haitians could heal through the power of their imagination. He was so inspired by our workshop, he had traveled 18 miles by three different “tap-tap” rides (motorcycles) to deliver his gift.
Our team wept, knowing how many days it took him to create this amazing evidence his life had been changed so profoundly. His dream now was not simply of food, water, or jobs, but for sharing with his struggling country the healing he had experienced through the arts.
Two of our adult participants had never drawn before, since Haitian’s educate using only rote memorization. It was incredible to see the joy of these two discovering a creative way to express themselves, teach and heal.
Another participant was so inspired he arrived at 7 a.m. to stay with us more than 12 hours to share a poster showing Haiti after the earthquake, Haiti now with new hope, and a future Haiti with water, food, vegetation and happiness. He could barely contain his excitement at what he had learned!
A withdrawn 4-year-old boy did not want to participate the first day. But by the third day, he had been transformed into an outgoing, vivacious child we all wanted to bring home.
Our group participants also created mandalas, experiencing the power of sacred circles and universal symbols used in the world’s religions and cultures for refuge and healing through what Carl Jung called the language of our unconscious self. They also created and walked a large labyrinth designed for psychological centering and meditation.
Haitians desperately want the education ArtReach offers, tools with which to cope and rebuild a new and better life. Help us continue our mission by donating generously, or for more information, go to www.artreachfoundation.org. The public can help by sponsoring a child at the Sibert School for $1 a day through www.heartinhaiti.com. And for more information about the Vincent’s private art therapy practice, or Dianne’s art school, visit www.artconnects.us or contact Dianne Tennyson Vincent, MAT, ATR at 843-870-7236.
Dianne Tennyson of Mount Pleasant has degrees in nursing and art, and a master’s degree in art education. She has served as an art therapist for “Expressions of Healing,” a cancer support group with Roper Hospital. She has her own art school, Art Connects.