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Stones for Peace at Navos

December 12, 2016. By

When Sally, one of Art with Heart’s program coordinators, tells people she’s running a program at Navos Behavioral Health, she says that she watches their eyes go big, or their eyebrows fly up in surprise. She says that they comment about how difficult that must be.

It’s easy to understand why people might respond this way: Navos’s BRS program is a residence for children who are separated from their parents, kids who have had a rough go of things in their short lives. But each time I’ve visited with them, these 6-12 year olds have been spirited and sweet, excited to make art and quick to engage.

At Sally’s program, students engage in a priming activity, then work in their copies of Draw It Out, and then create a piece of art guided by our program curriculum. Each week, the children work in different media and in different small groups, building their social emotional learning skills while getting to hear different perspectives and share their own experiences.

During my last visit, one little boy didn’t feel ready to draw a comic about problem-solving at first. Instead, he drew on a paper plate, then asked Sally to cut a hole in it. He returned to the table laughing and held the plate over his face, sticking his tongue through the hole. We didn’t realize he’d been making a mask, but of course he had: he needed a place to feel safe, and where better than behind a mask?

It wasn’t long before he put the mask down and worked with me to create an involved comic that combined aliens, a raucous concert, and Justin Bieber. He just needed a little more time, a little extra freedom. It’s true that these children have had more roadblocks than others, but at Navos, they have lots of one-on-one attention, not to mention therapeutic programming including Art with Heart’s creative expression program.

As I spent time with these kids, I wondered what our world would be like if kids—all kids—had this kind of attention and thoughtful programming before a tragedy, or a series of tragedies, impacted their lives. What if kids like Jeremiah always had adults encouraging them, letting them try something new, really listening to their needs? What if every time a kid like Jeremiah poked his tongue through a hole in a paper plate, someone was there to laugh and cheer him on?

That’s the world I want to live in, and it’s a world Art with Heart is working hard to create, one program, one training, one mindful, present ear at a time. At a recent session, Sally handed each child a stone. They all lay down on the floor with the stone on their bellies, and together they breathed. Sally led them in an exercise about what it feels like in their bodies when everything is calm and still. Then they wriggled around on the floor, making the stone shake and rock, symbolizing what life is like when things aren’t so calm.

The body holds all kinds of truths, including the churning stomachs that come with nerves and the mental focus everyone is capable of, which can make the act of creating art so healing. After the kids experimented with their stones, they painted them, and after the program, they’ll get to keep it with them, knowing that they can always place the stone on their bellies, breathe deeply, and calm down.