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Art for the Heart

Updated: Nov 30, 2021


The pandemic has asked a lot of us; grieving without familiarity, living with new constraints, being in isolation, accepting uncertainty with patience, just to name a few. Poverty causes our communities to suffer even more because it wears down the foundations that one needs to move through adversity with hope.

After listening to how COVID-19 impacted families in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, we decided to host regular spaces of human connection, safety and freedom to express the inner turmoil and imagine a hopeful future together. The loss of human connection because of the shut down of programs and communal spaces greatly impacted families' abilities to cope with the additional burdens of COVID-19. Stress from education shifts, having kids at-home unpredictably, ongoing grief and loss of normal routines, and irregular shut-downs of community spaces all significantly impacted our neighbours’ emotional health.

This offered so many ways of getting things out of my head, that didn’t require words. It was okay to just let it be, I didn’t have to talk about it more if I didn’t want to.

During much of the shutdown periods of this last year, I (Krista-Dawn) co-led over 60 women and youth in 6 groups exploring how artistic expression can help build emotional resilience. It was a real joy to lead with seven other staff partners throughout. Partnerships are a key strategy for us and the success of these programs came from the breadth of partnerships. We received funding from the government through the Emergency Community Support Fund. We collaborated with four other organizations: Crabtree YWCA, Jacob's Well and St. James Music Academy, using their space in St. Paul’s Church. These partnerships created new opportunities for ongoing membership in these organizations to self-select into the complimentary program that we were running. It took advantage of creating safe space in empty buildings, vacant during COVID-19. Neighbours learned more about the spaces that were hospitable to them that they may not have been in before, as well as built new relationships to prevent isolation and increase emotional support.

Krista-Dawn and Neisy (left to right), co-leaders of the Mother’s Group, in partnership with Jacob’s Well.

I particularly loved co-leading a mother’s group with Neisy Alberts Castillo, a staff with Jacob’s Well. Neisy has long-standing relationships with many mothers in the neighbourhood and brought her history of care and trust to the group. I felt the group’s welcoming dynamic so quickly. The partnership with Jacob’s Well allowed us to provide childcare for their children as well.

Many women were incredibly grateful for a time to focus on their own emotional worlds as well as develop neighbourly connections with other women. "Nobody will judge you in this group" "I felt human and not imprisoned in my home." Women enjoyed the time to be together with the option of expressing themselves verbally. “This was a group that I could calm down with,” said Dianna*.

Doing art together brings another level of meaning. It’s not the same when I am on my own at home.”

Mothers in the groups often told stories of how they were reproducing the activities at home with their own children to promote calm responses stress.

When asked what was the most meaningful impact, many commented on the effectiveness and practical nature of the skills they learned.

"I'm more able to respond to anxiety and sadness in helpful ways."

“Doing these art activities helped me find the value of the small things.”

"Taking time to name and affirm strengths was really powerful."

"I'm not artistic but I learned that when I tried it, I wasn't stressed, I left calm and could be patient with myself. It felt peaceful working with colours."

Participants reflected back that they will use the emotional regulation tracking scale that they learned on a daily basis.

"It helped me to learn how to "read" myself. “

“Thinking about positive things helps my view of the world. It counteracts the negative around me and calms me down.”

The youth commented on how much they enjoyed learning new art activities and recognized that they felt calmer afterwards, even after a full day of unpredictable school events.

Expressive arts are an amazing tool for personal self-awareness as well as deep communal connection. In gathering the mothers of our neighbourhood together, we were able to make space for emotional care and expression. We used materials like wool and paint to remember how our lives are full of resources for strength and courage. I built my web of support not only with the other mothers, but also strengthened the parts of me that were struggling. Each person walked away realizing that they were richer than they thought when they entered the group that day, myself included.

I no longer want to be resilient. I don’t want to simply bounce back from things that hurt me or cause me pain. Bouncing back means returning to where I stood before. Instead, I want to go beyond the hurts and the darkness. The first stop toward genuine healing from my mental illness was when I came to trust and believe that there was a beyond. Now I reach for beyond every day, in every encounter, in every circumstance. I seek to go where I have never travelled. I wake with the vision of a purposeful day, filled with adventures and teachings. Then I take the first step and try to make it Beyond.”

- Richard Wagamese, from Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations

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