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Project Background

Renaissance Village Art Therapy Trip #6– August 22-29 2006

By Karla Leopold LMFT, ATR, Fine Artist

One year after Hurricane Katrina, close to sixteen hundred people remain at Renaissance Village, Baker Louisiana in 24-26 foot travel trailers. This is FEMA’s largest temporary housing for the evacuees from New Orleans. A talented and caring team of eleven art therapists and volunteers returned to this site for the sixth and last planned trip. We worked with the children and families through the first year anniversary of Katrina. This was made possible with the financial support from Rosie’s For All Kids Foundation.

It has been a very difficult year for these people. Their relocation to Renaissance Village has not been easy. Getting the children enrolled and attending school has been difficult. The number of teenagers not going to school is alarming. The school district appears overwhelmed and ill prepared to deal with these children from New Orleans. Two therapists from our team spent a separate week working hard to enroll the children and dealing with some of the difficulties involved. The day care center, teen center and Head Start facilities donated by RFAK over eight months ago are still not opened due to construction delays and the complexities of working with governmental entities. There are no computers for the people to access their e-mail or to do research. The bus service has been severely reduced. The food service closed. So many of these people have lost everything and lack the means, strength and skills to rebuild their lives and many of them are reluctant to accept the help that is offered through agencies.

Their mental health needs are overwhelming. This displaced population has been traumatized. As reported by the New York Times: “Among children fourth grade and beyond, affected by the storm, 49 percent met the threshold for mental health clinical referrals.” This is a generational problem that is not being treated. The Red Cross and members of the community report that our team of art therapists and volunteers has offered the most consistent and effective mental health services for the families of Renaissance Village. Yet we work there only every other month and have no future trips planned.

We were able to see a degree of positive recovery in some of the children and families receiving art therapy over the past year. There was a sense of hope in some of the art created. Houses were no longer triangles but structures the children hope to occupy in the future, roads were leading to somewhere, and flowers were blooming. It was easier for the children and adults to engage in group projects and help each other. Some were able to create a new sense of community. These are major goals for the recovery process.

As this was our last planned trip, it was important for us to engage the whole community in art therapy and activities. The mornings began with the adults knitting and beading. The men and women loved these activities as they could make something of beauty to wear and take home. Someone would call our hotel early every morning to see what time we would arrive so everyone could be ready and waiting at the tables. One man brought his 86 year-old grandmother to the tent everyday to sit with us. She said she thought she was back in New Orleans where she would go daily to an activity center. This was the first time in a difficult year that she had somewhere to go where she could have fun.

One of our volunteers planned evening activities including games, dancing, singing and karaoke. The tent would rock and fill with wonderful energy. There were some talented and some not so talented singers in the community. All the art therapy team joined in the dancing. It was wonderful to see the smiles and hear the conversations of people that haven’t smiled or talked for a long time.

We would spend the remainder of the day creating amazing art that was celebrated with A Katrina Recovery Project: Belonging – Rebuilding – Strength, a recycled materials art contest, exhibit and reception on the eve of the anniversary of Katrina. We called it Eco Art. Local sponsors Baton Rouge Recycling and Southern Scrap Recycling helped make this possible. The metaphor of using throw away and recycled materials to create items of beauty and function was extremely fitting for this displaced population. There were a hundred participants working on projects - equal numbers of adults, children and teens. We worked in the moldy tent, the only place big enough to hold us all, in the over 90 degree heat and heavy humidity. 

Enthusiasm and creativity filled the tent as the participants were asked to create a sculpture from debris still found in front of destroyed homes in the Ninth Ward, computer parts, scrap metal, trash, recycled items, etc. People were empowered as they used hammers and saws. They went home and worked on the project in the evenings. They anxiously awaited our return the next day. Families worked together. One woman told us that it was a wonderful week because she went to bed and woke up thinking about her project instead of her many problems.

After working for the week, each participant titled their sculpture and wrote a statement about their piece. Professionals from the Baton Rouge Area judged over forty-five entries. That evening the moldy tent was transformed to an art gallery with table clothes, white lights, sparkling grape juice and music. Invited guests from Renaissance Village and the Baton Rouge community crowded the tent to meet the artists and view the exhibit. Fifteen winners were announced from the categories of adult, teen and children. Winners received ribbons and cash prizes. All participants were acknowledged and received a small cash prize. It was easy to see the pride and feelings of accomplishment throughout the tent.

So much of the work from the week was outstanding but a middle aged quiet woman who returned everyday the moment we arrived, created my favorite piece. She used a doll head covered with mud from the floods of the Ninth Ward combined with computer parts and other recycled items to create an angel. The title of her creation was Katrina Survivor Child. The angel was dedicated to the people lost to the storm and floods of Katrina and to bring hope to those who survived. When the artist learned she had won third place, she was thrilled. She had tears in her eyes as she hugged and thanked all of us that had helped her create her angel. This lovely, soft-spoken woman planned to use the prize money to have her hair done and fix her decayed tooth. She had no extra money to do this since being displaced by Katrina.

Some of the artwork from the Eco Art project can be viewed in the Gallery along with other work created during art therapy. The web site is With the financial help and support of many of you, we were able to construct this site.

This was our last sponsored trip but our work has just begun. The work that was done this last year was so incredibly powerful and important. The effectiveness of art therapy in the process of recovery can be viewed over and over in the lives of these children, families and individuals from Renaissance Village. Our vision is to continue the work with these children and many of the others affected by the trauma of Katrina. Our vision includes a children’s trauma center to supply information, help and resources for all people touched by trauma and loss. The art exhibit, Katrina Through the Eyes of Children, has many examples of children affected by trauma and treated with art therapy through the process of recovery. The exhibit will travel the world. We will continue to seek support and financial assistance to make this vision a reality.

There are so many people to thank for making this art therapy work possible; Rosie and all the people at RFAK through their generous financial support, the talented team members who have given so graciously of their talents and time, Sister Judith Brun who continues to be our inspiration and connection to the community members of Baton Rouge, Louisiana who made this our second home, and the support people who supply art supplies, money, verbal support, insights, expertise, comfort, inspiration and prayers. The people of Renaissance Village are the most important people we want to thank. By sharing their lives and stories, they have touched and changed our hearts forever!

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