Jessica Flowers, mother of one, is a program manager at Free Arts of Arizona, a nonprofit organization that brings the healing powers of the creative arts to abused, neglected, and homeless children in the Phoenix, Arizona area. Join me in learning more about the amazing work that Free Arts does to help children overcome adversity.
JEAN: What a wonderful program you have combining the therapeutic and creative potentials of art! Can you tell us more about how Free Arts uses art to help disadvantaged children?
JESSICA: While research shows us that the arts are beneficial to the development of all children, they have a special added therapeutic bonus for youth who have experienced trauma. The children we work with at Free Arts have all experienced things that most of us can only dream of – physical or sexual abuse, extreme neglect, and prolonged homelessness. Because of this they often lack the ability to express themselves in a positive way. In order to deal with the trauma they have faced, some may turn to drugs or cutting or violence to express their feelings while others may turn inward and not speak at all. At Free Arts our goal is to connect youth with positive, caring adults and introduce these youth to the arts with the hope they will feel safe and successful in our programs and also find positive ways to cope and express their feelings.
The program that I manage is called the Weekly Mentor program. I train volunteers who go into group homes, homeless shelters and residential treatment facilities to bring art activities to groups of youth. We work with over 110 sites and youth ranging in age from 0 -21 years old. In the mentoring program (and really all of our programs) it is the blend of the arts and caring, positive adult role models that make the program successful.
JEAN: Why do you feel art is an important way to reach and help these children?
JESSICA: We have a motto here at Free Arts, “There are no mistakes in art!” We really believe that this phrase is what makes art the perfect medium to help youth to heal. There is a freedom that comes from truly expressing yourself creatively. Many of the youth that we work with have not experienced success in other areas of their lives: they may struggle in school, or receive little positive reinforcement at home. For many of our youth, Free Arts programs are the only place where they can be themselves, make “mistakes” and not be judged.
Art also gives youth the power to make choices. For many of our kids, their lives are governed by the state (Child Protective Services). They do not have a say in where they will live, what they will eat, how they will behave. . . In a Free Arts program they get to choose what materials to use, how to use the materials, whether or not to share their project with the group. This may not seem like a big deal to us but I will never forget one young man in our camp program telling me once, “It was so cool being able to choose what colors to paint my project – I’ve never done that before!”
JEAN: Will you share a bit about your own background and how you got involved with Free Arts?
JESSICA: Growing up, art was my coping tool. When I would get mad or upset I would go into my room and draw or dance for hours. In college I majored in theater and went on to teach musical theater and dance for high schools locally and nationally. After doing some volunteer work in the Midwest, I realized that I wanted a career that blended my art and teaching background with social service. In a strange and kismet turn of events I ended up at Free Arts and have been here for 4 years. It is the perfect blend of all of my skills and passions.
JEAN: You mentioned that you manage over 100 volunteer mentors who in turn run weekly arts programs for youth throughout the city. Can you give an example of what one of those weekly programs is like? What kinds of activities do the mentors do with the kids?
JESSICA: First, let me say that I am so lucky to get to train and lead 100 amazing and passionate volunteers each term! Our mentors are the best and I learn from them every day.
At Free Arts we have designed a curriculum for our mentors to loosely follow. They are all asked to adhere to the basic program structure of beginning, middle and end with the beginning being a warm up or get-to-know-you activity of some kind, the middle being the main project and the end begin some kind of discussion, reflection or sharing.
For the middle projects we provide mentors with a Project Manual which is organized based on Bruce Tuckman’s group development theory. So, for instance, in the beginning of their mentor term the group is doing projects that require limited media and are very simple so that youth can experience a high level of success and begin to feel comfortable doing art. Subsequent sections of the book introduce more media and focus on things like creativity, social skills and empowerment. The projects included in the book are all therapeutic in nature. Some are healing simply because they are fun and process-based (finger-painting to music) and some are more intentional like creating a dream pillow.
Additionally, mentors are asked to focus on several therapeutic elements throughout their time with the kids. Mentors are not therapists and don’t interpret the artwork but are taught to ask discussion questions and work to help youth see the value of the arts in dealing with emotion and expressing hopes and dreams.
JEAN: Are you able to track the effects your arts programs have over time?
JESSICA: Great question! Unfortunately, due to the transient nature of our population (youth often only stay in the facilities we work with for 1-3 months) we are not able to track “long-term” effects. We do, however, collect qualitative and quantitative data from our programs where we can see if kids have improved in certain areas like social interaction and coping skills. The most telling information comes from the kids directly who tell us things like:
"Emily, our Free Arts Instructor is the most instructive, helpful, coping, heartful and caring person I've ever met. We love you and you've touched our hearts. You'll be remembered . . . thank you."
“I had a blast! I had never experienced the things I did there before. Now I'm more talkative and outspoken! Thanks Free Arts!”
And “I want Madonna!”
JEAN: Anything else you’d like to add?
JESSICA: I wanted to tell one of my favorite stories of transformation:
Arthur was this big hulk of a teenager wearing an Insane Clown Posse tee-shirt and a black sweatshirt with the hood up. He was pierced and tough looking with a stoic face that said “Don’t mess with me”. He came to MAC Camp begrudgingly. He approached the registration table with the facility staff who said to us, “This is Arthur, I dunno how he’ll do here so just call me if you want me to come pick him up.” Arthur spent most of his first day plugged into his i-pod ignoring what was going on around him. On the second day we learned that he was an author, with several novels in the works. Several volunteers asked Arthur about his work and the next day he brought in samples for us all to read. By day 3 he actually got up and danced in the Latin dance class. On the final day of camp, I was standing in the cafeteria and Arthur came and threw his body against the glass window, melted to the ground and crawled down the hallway – he had turned into the camp clown! At the final showcase Arthur performed his Latin dance steps to a crowd of 100 friends and staff members. After the showcase was over his house manager came up to me with a shocked looked on her face, “that was the first time I’ve ever seen Arthur smile.” She said in awe. “How long has he been there?” I asked, thinking that his answer would be just a few days, “4 months” she replied. Arthur had been transformed in just 4 short days. The combination of being introduced to the process of art and making connections with and being supported by so many positive adults gave Arthur the strength to be his silly, fun-loving, creative self!
Lastly, I want to thank you Jean. Besides being a Program Manager I am also the mom of a fabulously creative two and a half year old. It wasn’t until I discovered The Artful Parent that I realized that I can bring my work home with me! I have so enjoyed being inspired to do art with my son at home and through that process have rediscovered my own creativity and have so much more to share with my family and the youth and volunteers I work with everyday!
JEAN: Thank you, Jessica! Thanks for sharing yourself and your work with us. I loved learning about how Free Arts uses the power of art to transform children's lives!
Free Arts of Arizona is a nonprofit organization and relies on the support of people like us. If you would like to contribute time or money to help them do their work, you can find more information on donating here and on volunteering here.