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Healing through the eyes of kids

To be run in the 9/14/07 edition

For days in the fall of 2005, a 12-year-old Hurricane Katrina survivor named Justin worked in an open tent in the sweltering Louisiana heat, decorating a cardboard box with fake flowers, Christmas ornaments and other things he found beautiful. When art therapist Karla Leopold asked him what the box represented, he replied, “I took all the dead people living in my head and put them in the box.” The next day he added more embellishment to the box, saying quietly, “I forgot, I have to put in the animals, too.”

“That’s the kind of heart-wrenching thing I heard from these kids, when they could verbalize their feelings, which wasn’t that often. They had seen unspeakable things,” Leopold recalls. Through art therapy, she was able to help hundreds of children find a way to communicate their fears and hurts, and to begin to heal. On Sunday in Louisiana, , an art exhibit of work done by children whose lives were devastated by the deadly hurricane, will have a special artists’ reception/dedication at the New Orleans Museum of Art. (The art is available to view online at The show would have never come into being without the tireless dedication of the team assembled by Leopold, a long-time Del Mar resident skilled in working with children suffering from trauma and loss.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the gulf coast in August, 2005, Karla Leopold was not looking for a cause to give her life meaning. After 30 years of working with children as an educator and licensed art therapist, she had closed down her practice and was happily engaged in creating her own art full-time. She was showing her work in galleries, enjoying life with her husband and grown children, and relishing the birth of her first grandchild. But in the aftermath of the storm, everything changed. “I knew I had to do something,” Leopold recalls.

She tried to volunteer her skills to organizations such as the Red Cross, but had no luck in finding a way to help until she happened to speak to her friend Elizabeth Birch. Birch was running Rosie O’Donnell’s “For All Kids” foundation, and had just returned from Louisiana, where she and O’Donnell had distributed diapers and food. Birch challenged Leopold to put together a team of art therapists to help the children deal with the enormous trauma they had been through. “For All Kids” would provide the initial funding for the project.

Leopold recruited art therapy students from her alma mater, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, to help her out. They traveled to Louisiana and met up for the first time with Sister Judith Brun, a Catholic nun who was a children’s advocate for the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. Their group headed to Renaissance Village, the largest trailer park established by FEMA after the storm, providing housing for 1,700 people. “There we were in a cow pasture filled with hundreds of trailers” recalls Leopold. “We watched the families move in. Buses brought load after load of people to this place in the middle of nowhere. Everyone carried all their worldly possessions in plastic bags over their shoulders.”

“Miss Karla” (as she soon came to be known) and her team worked hard to win the trust of the citizens of the trailer park. Most were not in a trusting mood. “These people had been abandoned both during and after the storm. These kids were so traumatized” Leopold says. Many lost family members and pets, their sense of safety and the only homes they had ever known. “Most of the kids were not able to put into words what they had been through, but art gives children a special outlet, a way to get the visions and feelings out of their heads. It’s very powerful and very healing.”

“One boy I worked with made an ant out of pipe cleaners. I was gently able to get him to tell me why. He had felt like an ant, small and forgotten and in danger of being crushed. I asked him what he could do to make the ant safe. He built a vibrant blue house for the ant. I later found out from his father that they had been stranded for 2 days with sixty other people on a bayou, surrounded by flood waters. For two days helicopters and boats passed them by. They were some of the last people rescued from that area.”

Leopold has continued to return to Louisiana regularly (she has made 15 trips in all) with teams of volunteers, including students recruited through Lisa Falls, an art therapist who runs UCSD’s art therapy program. “We have been one of the only sources of concern and consistency for these people. When we return they light up, they know someone cares.”

Over time, Leopold and her associates have had to “beg, borrow and steal” to keep the art therapy program going for these children. Just
as hope and funds were about to run out, they recently got what Leopold characterizes as “a significant contribution” from country music stars
Faith Hill and Tim McGraw through their “Neighbor’s Keeper” foundation. The donation enabled the team to not only mount the exhibit at the museum, but also to train future teams of art therapists to continue work with traumatized children.

“This is not about me, or Rosie or Faith and Tim,” says Leopold. “The kids are the heroes here. These kids survived something horrifying. This art show is about them. This is a piece of history. To see trauma and history through the eyes of children is very powerful. These works of art need to be treasured and shown.”

To get the art into a format suitable for public display, Leopold turned to another friend, Leo Bonamy, the head of a design and production company based in Pasadena, who helped get the works framed and mounted, photographed and sequenced. “Leo helped bring this all together. So many people have put their hearts and souls into this project.” Leopold’s long-term goal is for the exhibit to travel to museums around the world, including southern California, and particularly San Diego. She hopes that one day the pieces will be archived in the Smithsonian. “Lest any of us forget,” she adds.

So on Sunday, Leopold will be in Louisiana to accompany several busloads of children and family members from Renaissance Village for the 90 minute ride to the New Orleans Art Museum for the reception for the exhibit. Next month, she is off to Israel with Sister Judith. They have been invited there to visit trauma centers. “After seeing what we did with the Katrina kids, they want to learn to partner their skills with our skills to do a better job of training people to deal with trauma. There is much more work to do,” Leopold concludes. “When I get back to Del Mar, I want to find out if we have any kind of plan in place to help our community respond to a major disaster.”

(For further information and ways to get involved and help Katrina survivors who are still in need, visit . This story was excerpted with permission of the author, Del Mar resident Carol Arnold, from a longer piece she is working on for publication.)

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!


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