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Renaissance Village Art Therapy Trip #7– May 2007

Almost two years after the devastation of Katrina much of our nation believes that the situation in Louisiana has improved and people have put their lives back together. Unfortunately, returning on our seventh visit to Renaissance Village, this is not what we found. There are approximately 1700 people still living in these camper trailers. These trailers were never meant to be homes. The feelings of hopelessness, frustration, anger and loss filled the camp. Lack of transportation, jobs, schooling, money and choices continued to be major problems. There were mounting physical and mental health issues. We learned that three families moved out of the trailer park to better situations only to have these now empty trailers immediately filled with displaced people trying to move closer to New Orleans. Added to this growing list of problems were the molding trailers, and the returning hurricane season.  Many call this displaced population, The Forgotten People. 

A core group of eleven art therapists and volunteers returned to the trailer facility after an eight-month absence. We were joined daily by Sister Judith who was warmly greeted not only for her help and love but also for the delivery of lunches. This trip was made possible by a generous donation from AEG, one of the world’s leading sports and entertainment presenters, and others. The majority of the core team had volunteered their time. Through the Romcyn Atelier Foundation, Wayne State University in Nebraska funded two of the team members. Two art therapy students from Emporia State University in Kansas supplied their own funding. Local mental health workers and volunteers joined us for on-site training sessions and art therapy work.

We had two main goals this trip. Our first goal was to continue our art therapy work.

The art was used for many different reasons. The art allowed many of the children to focus, settle and feel good about themselves. They were able to draw somewhat stable and solid structures unlike the pictures they drew during our earlier trips.
Some used it to process the overwhelming feelings they experience while living in this difficult situation.
 
   
We used the art as an assessment tool. A few pictures continued to show how the trauma of Katrina was still a major part of their psyche.
   
   
Others were able to create something out of cast off items and internalize the process of making something beautiful out of throw-away materials.
     
   
   
While creating art in the large tent we also offered safety, food, role modeling, and hope.  In return we received the privilege of connecting and creating art with many wonderful survivors.
   
   
   

The second goal for this trip was to generate interest and commitment from local personnel to develop an on going art program for the children. We provided classroom-training sessions for approximately twenty interested mental health workers and volunteers after which, they joined us in the large tent to work one-on-one with the children.  There is a plan in action to create an on going art program. Many of these individuals will join us to work on our next trip and we will continue to train interested local people.

It was interesting to watch the team work this trip. It was apparent that during the first few days the feelings generated by this hopeless, depressed and frustrated population had affected our work. It all seemed so heavy and difficult. We had begun to reflect the feelings of the people we were trying to help. Once this was identified, processed and a new plan of action was put in place, the work changed. We initiated the difference by creating silly, fun hats. This also became a cultural activity for the survivors of New Orleans.  We all wore the hats and had the teens take photos.

   
   
   
   
The teenagers are overcome with boredom, anger and isolation. The opportunities to get in trouble are many. Unlike most other teens with choices, these teens lack things to do, places to go and transportation to get there.  Initially we had difficulty getting many of the teens we had worked with in the past to participate. They appeared angry, agitated, depressed and frustrated. We were finally able to engage even the toughest teens, with the belief that even the troublemakers were good kids, through a persistent focus and the use of photography. They were given digital cameras to take self-portraits, photos of peers and things important to them.  Almost every teen took their self-portrait with a painted poster of New Orleans.  Using the camera allowed these teens to create and imagine a piece of their own history and validate their identity. It also allowed them to process their losses.
   
   
   

Throughout the remainder of the week the teens continued to participate with the others while building sculptures from recycled materials. While working with one quiet and bright teenage girl she told me it was extremely difficult to live there.  She seldom left her trailer except to go to school.  She thanked me for being there and told me that it felt good to have a place to go, to create something she felt good about and to feel safe.

It is amazing to think that we have had a relationship with many of these families for two years. We have watched them grow and change. There is a big difference between a four year old and a six year old. One young boy reminded me that he was no longer the baby he was at four now that he was a big six. It is hard to imagine what the future brings for these children unless some major changes take place. Changes in mental health, education, transportation and the way the nation views our poor and displaced. For the displaced families at Renaissance Village we have begun to make a small change by offering mental health service through art therapy.

One young boy knows that he is not forgotten. He said that he knew he was loved. When asked how he knew that he replied, “I know you love me because you keep on coming back.”

   


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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