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Art Feeds Offers Therapy to Treat Childhood Trauma

An arts non-profit organization offers therapeutic programming for child victims of natural disasters.

By Arts & Culture

Illustration by Alex Kostiw

Illustration by Alex Kostiw

Art Feeds is a nonprofit organization based out of Joplin, MO that works with children in classrooms and uses art as a developmental device for education and expression. The organization works in two distinct capacities: As a permanent program in their hometown as well as a developer; and as a distributor of therapeutic art lessons typically used as a trauma response curriculum for natural disasters.

Art Feeds was born from the needs of a single student. Founder Meg Bourne-Hulsey was working with a student who was having issues with communication and showed signs of anxiety. Working with the student through art lessons, she found out that he wasn’t able to eat when he was away from school. She continued to work with the student, noting that art was nourishing him in a way that was just as essential as food. Bourne-Hulsey started to raise money for supplies and created programming that could be used by groups of students considered at risk. From this starting point, support for this effort grew, and Art Feeds’ first chapter was established in Joplin. Now, 16 schools and three children’s organizations in Joplin receive free creative education sessions in their classrooms. Each lesson is facilitated by trained community volunteers and includes activities not limited to painting, drawing, storytelling, dancing, and mural making. In this city alone, 14,000 children have been impacted.

When an EF5 tornado struck Joplin in 2011, the Art Feeds staff quickly realized that the programming would need to change form to ensure every child could have an outlet to cope with the trauma they were facing. Art Feeds shifted from small focus groups to all-inclusive, school-wide programming. Staff realized that students already struggled with various forms of trauma and obstacles prior to the disaster, which were then amplified by the storm. This was the start of the trauma curriculum outreach. The program provided free packs of supplies for each lesson to every child.

Volunteers are screened and trained in the program before heading to shelters, child care facilities, summer schools, and temporary class locations to bring the lessons to the students. When other disasters devastated other communities in the nation, Art Feeds moved quickly to extend their support. They’ve provided curricula and thousands of art supply packs to students affected by tornados in Oklahoma, as well as flooding in Colorado and in New Jersey. They have also partnered with Touch a Life foundation to reach out to students in Ghana. 

In the communities where Art Feeds distributed this therapeutic art curriculum, the response further revealed a necessity for art programs in schools. Moore, OK has a public school system where, out of 24 elementary schools with approximately 11,000 students enrolled, only 10 had faculty whose primary job and focus was to teach visual arts in the classroom. Neither school affected in the 2013 tornado had an established art specialist, and therefore no formal art program.

However, Art Feeds did not come into the schools because there was a need for art in the classroom; rather, there was a need for healing. Their mission statement reads, “Art Feeds believes all children are artists. We exist to feed creative development and facilitate emotional expression in children through art and community. To do this, we provide free therapeutic art and creative education programs within schools & children’s organizations by mobilizing teams of community members to bring all forms of art into classrooms.”

This small organization has reached over 24,000 children with their resources, and continues to grow. Bourne-Hulsey began with a single student in need and has since reached tens of thousands more through art. Perhaps nothing speaks to their impact more than the numbers. Schools with Art Feeds programs boast a 100 percent return rate. They also report that 90 percent of their teachers say that the program is valuable in decreasing fear, stress, and anxiety; and 86 percent of students reported loving Art Feeds programming more than recess and lunch.

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