Carrboro nonprofit uses art for healing

By Todd Cohen

CARRBORO, N.C. — In the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Durham public schools, students who are refugees or immigrants, typically do not speak English, and generally have lived in the community for less than a year, draw pictures and use other forms of art to express their feelings and talk about themselves and where they grew up.

At Durham nonprofit Families Moving Forward, a group of single parents who are homeless and living in transitional housing meet once a week in a group and use music or other art activities to help work through challenges they face.

And at Galloway Ridge, a retirement community in Chatham County, residents with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia spend time every other week occupying themselves with painting and other arts activities.

Providing all those programs is the Art Therapy Institute, a Carrboro nonprofit that provides therapeutic art-making opportunities for people who experience illness, trauma or other challenges in living.

“Art transcends language barriers,” says Hillary Rubesin, interim executive director at the Institute. “A lot of the population we work with are considered marginalized groups. Providing them with the tools and the means to share their own voices — that’s the power of the arts.”

Feeling disconnected can make life difficult for children and adults alike, whether they are new to the region, don’t speak English, are homeless, or live with a physical disability, mental illness, cancer or dementia, says Rubesin, an expressive therapist who uses the arts — such as painting, music, dance and drama — for healing.

Formed in 2006 as a program of The Exchange Family Center in Durham, the Institute became a nonprofit in 2009.

It operates with an annual budget of $200,000, a staff of six full-time clinicians, and clinical interns from local and national colleges and universities, plus about 80 volunteers, and serves about 500 people a year, including about 400 children.

It offers six clinical programs, most of them through partnerships with public schools and nonprofits.

Its exceptional children’s program, for example, serves about 150 students with physical or “processing” disabilities once a week for 30 minutes to an hour in their self-contained classrooms in 20 schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro public school system.

To help build their social skills, reduce their anxiety and increase their self-esteem, children with physical disabilities, such as blindness, can squeeze nontoxic, scented food coloring into sand, for example, and then make pictures in the sand to express themselves.

In self-contained classrooms in 20 Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Durham public schools, therapists from the Institute meet once a week with a total of about 150 students who are newly-arrived refugees and immigrants, many of them dealing with past trauma and many of them who cannot speak English, using art to “share parts of themselves and their stories,” Rubesin says.

The same “Newcomer” program, in partnership with resettlement agency Church World Service in Durham and at its own office in Carrboro, also meets every other week with a total of about 40 adults who use art to express themselves and connect with one another.

The Institute also hosts a free weekly community arts group at its office for any adult in the community who identifies as living with mental illness, and provides arts therapy groups at Duke Hospital and UNC Hospitals for children with cancer, as well as monthly arts shows and monthly art-therapy workshops.

Now, the Institute aims to raise more money through grants and from individuals to grow through even more partnerships, including introducing its program for refugee and immigrant adults and children in Wake, Guilford and New Hanover counties.

“For newcomers coming to this country who often cannot speak English or have such intense trauma backgrounds, they’re sometimes not even comfortable talking about it in their own language,” Rubesin says.

“The arts are an equalizing tool for people who might not feel confident in other aspects of their lives, or who might be suffering from mental illness,” she says. “It’s about  being able to express themselves through art. It allows you to tell your story in a way that you want it to be told.”

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