Art used as therapy to help troubled kids create hope

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PHOENIX -- We all know that art is about creativity, but that creativity is not limited to paintings, sculptures, or songs. For some kids, art is also about creating hope.

Over the whir of her food processors, Nabora Blea wants to know what to do next, and just like in any kitchen the answer is simple: Chop, stuff, stir, blend, and bake. It all happens under the guidance of Chef Rodney Jankowski.

For many students at Desiderata High School, the chopping, stuffing, stirring, blending, and baking, are not just means of making a great meal. They are steps in the process to help heal troubled lives, says to Barbara Fenster with Free Arts of Arizona.

"This is an exploration of self. Art is the tool," Fenster explained.

The class Blea is taking, The Art of Cooking, is just one of many offered by Free Arts of Arizona.

"Free Arts is a program that uses art therapeutically to help children who have had tough lives for a lot of reasons,” Fenster said. “Most of them are with the state in the child-welfare system; some of them are not."

Most of the kids at Desiderata struggle with emotional disabilities.

Whatever the background, whatever the circumstances, Fenster says there is an art ready to help.

"Art is a very broad term that we used to include social dance, writing, poetry , making masks, doing visual arts, drumming, you name it we use it,” she said. “Arts are magic."

Under that magical spell, kids who cut themselves stop to practice the cha-cha.

For Blea, paints and pencils replace punches.

“I had a lot of frustration so instead of taking it out on other people and hitting them, I took it out on the paper," she said. Thanks to Free Arts of Arizona, kids who once might have been considered problem students are now problem solvers.

"I made a mistake once, but we actually fixed it, and I didn't get mad at it. We can always fix something,” said Angela Diaz. It’s a life lesson she learned from a recipe.

Principal Manuel Calderon sees it every day.

"None of these kids do I ever have to deal with their discipline, because they are always positive -- the connection they have made, their self esteem, their self worth, the things they believe in themselves."

It’s not just the arts that are changing the kids. It’s also volunteers like Jankowski who give the kids true role models.

"The volunteers’ job is to sit one-on-one with the student or the child and say, ‘What you are doing is wonderful,’” Fenster said. “They don't get that kind of affirmation very often."

The pay-off is in the smiles that come on slowly, the art work created, and the lives healed over music, and murals, and a good meal.

Blea believes Free Arts of Arizona has changed her.

"I would probably be different,” she said. “I would be upset more, hitting people more."

Free Arts of Arizona serves more than 5,000 kids each year, and it’s all funded through donations and staffed by volunteers.

IKEA is hosting a fundraiser called Furnishing Health Through Free Arts on Thursday, April 7. Tickets are $25. The event features both a silent auction and a live auction, as well as appetizers and desserts.

In addition to the IKEA event, you can also buy a raffle ticket to win the “ultimate IKEA experience in Sweden.” Those tickets are $100, and there are only 250 available. You do not need to be at the event to win.

To learn more about Free Arts of Arizona or for details about the upcoming IKEA fundraiser, call 602-258-8100.