Renaissance art Grant strengthens program for children of Katrina
Advocate staff photo by Pat Sema
Sister Judith Brun, center, attends an exhibit of works created by children of Renaissance Village at the New Orleans Museum of Art. The exhibit grew out of an art therapy program that led to Brun’s Community Initiatives Foundation receiving a $1 million grant from country music stars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw.
By GEORGE MORRIS
Advocate staff writer
Published: Sep 30, 2007
In Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, good seed only thrives in good soil. Not everyone would look at Renaissance Village and see an opportunity to flourish.
Sister Judith Brun did.
In September, Brun’s work with children at the FEMA trailer village for Hurricane Katrina evacuees received an eye-popping grant, and the children saw their work displayed on Sept. 16 at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Country music superstars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw donated $1 million to Brun’s Community Initiatives Foundation, which has been working with Katrina-displaced children. Much of that work has focused on providing art therapy to the children to help them deal with the trauma created by the storm.
“Lots of trust,” Brun said of the grant, “but most of all lots of desire on the part of two young stars, Tim and Faith, to serve young people, because they themselves had very challenging upbringings. They wanted to invest their gift in helping children.”
The serendipitous nature of the grant still makes Brun chuckle. When college volunteers from Boston came to help at Renaissance Village, one of them said her boyfriend’s dad knew people in the music business who were looking to make a major charitable grant and suggested that Brun apply.
In a day and a half, Brun had written a grant proposal, even though she had no clear idea of how big of a grant to seek.
“The young lady told me, ‘Look, it’s a lot of money,’” Brun said. “I said, ‘What’s a lot?’ So, I wrote it for about $250,000. I laid out a proposal, and at the end I said, ‘I realize I’m asking for a lot, but I want you to know this will get us on a very firm footing for doing great work. It will not accomplish the work, but it will get us on a very strong footing.’”
Brun, a former principal at St. Joseph’s Academy, hopes to develop a training program for people with close contact with children — pediatricians, teachers, parents, nurses, Sunday School teachers — to work effectively with children who have experienced trauma.
“It’s one of those valuable lessons that Katrina taught us,” Brun said. “We have many children — not just our displaced children — who are at risk and who have been traumatized. Many, many children. I hope that we’ll be in a position of strength to serve these children, and if something else terrible happens again, we’ll be a little better prepared.”
Brun admits she didn’t design the art therapy program as much as she helped those who showed up to form it. The catalyst was Karla Leopold, an art therapist from San Diego who, like many at the time, could not look at the televised images of Katrina’s aftermath and not do something.
“I knew I belonged down here with the children but wasn’t quite sure how I was going to do that,” Leopold said. “I had tried the Red Cross, different ways, and it just became very difficult.”
One of Leopold’s friends, who worked for Rosie’s For All Kids Foundation, a nonprofit organization for impoverished children, told Leopold there would be money available to help her put together a team of art therapists to help evacuee children. Leopold recruited therapists from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and came to Baton Rouge, where she met Brun.
The therapists were there when evacuees started arriving at Renaissance Village. Not a moment too soon, said Joseph Griffin, whose two sons were traumatized by their experiences during and after the flood.
“The things they saw, I didn’t think they’d ever be normal again,” Griffin said.
Art therapy, Leopold said, is designed for such situations. Children, especially younger ones, struggle to verbalize such traumatic experiences, and even become more traumatized when they do, Leopold said. Art allows them to express without words.
Leopold said the stories the artwork told were unlike anything she’d seen in 30 years of art therapy. They reminded her of artwork she had seen displayed by child survivors of the Holocaust in the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.
“It was such powerful images they never left my head,” Leopold said.
Among the recurring images was the way children were drawing houses. Typically, Leopold said, children will draw a rectangle with a triangle on top to depict a house. The Katrina evacuees drew only the triangle.
The reason, she said, was that the children now associated the roof rather than the house as the place of refuge. For many of them, it was. Trapped by rising waters, their families escaped into the attic and cut holes in the roof, where rescuers could find them.
The drawings also included images of bodies, both human and animal, sometimes representing a friend or relative who died. Some had snakes and alligators.
“My kids saw bodies,” said Griffin, whose family went through its roof to reach a neighbor’s second-story balcony. After a few days, they waded and swam through the water to high ground near Bayou St. John.
“We saw babies, men, women and children and animals,” he said. “While we were coming up St. Peter Street, Jamal jumped on what he thought was a door, a piece of wood. I didn’t know what it was. I pushed it all the way to the bayou. When I got ready to pull it up, the shirt came off the man. There was a lot for me to think about, too. At the time, he didn’t understand what was going on, but as he reflected on it, he was telling my mother he floated on a dead body. Everybody was just in a panic to get to higher ground.”
When art therapist Paige Asawa worked with Jamal Griffin, the first object he created was an ant. It represented, Asawa said, his feeling of vulnerability.
Later, as Jamal improved, he decided to build a house for the ant to protect it. Jamal strengthened the house with glue and tape, and even reinforced the corners with clay.
“This house is rock solid,” Asawa said. “I’ve never seen a house built this strong in all of my life. When he first built it, it was just a closed house. It didn’t have a door and it didn’t have any windows. After he made it that strong and it dried, he felt safe to cut open a window. He said, ‘Now you can see the ant inside.’”
The window is in the roof.
The trauma involved more than the flood. The displacement, multiple moves and eventual relocation to Renaissance Village all were difficult to deal with. Although many of the children have responded well to the therapy, Leopold still sees triangle houses, which tells her there is work to be done.
The teams of 10 to 12 therapists have made 10 visits to Renaissance Village, each trip lasting seven to 10 days.
“I got notes from the kids that say, ‘We know you love us.’ I’ll say, ‘How do you know that?’ And they say, ‘Because you keep coming back. You come again.’ That’s been an important trust issue,” Leopold said.
“I’ve never had a group that needed the help so badly, and I worry about the children who aren’t getting the help.”
Katrina Through the Eyes of Children, the mixed media art exhibit created by these children becomes more important with every visit. This story must be told!