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Guided drawing makes children artists in Heart to Heart Art

The Heart to Heart Art program at the YWCA’s after-school and summer programs for homeless youth inspires basic artistic skills of at-risk children as one way to help build their resilience to overcome obstacles they face.

Deborah Booth works with students in Kenya.

Jerri Shepard and Deborah Booth, associate professors in Gonzaga University’s School of Education, and Monica Walters, director of the Spokane YWCA, not only have shared the program with Spokane children, but also brought it to AIDS orphans at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Secondary School in Kibera, Kenya, in August.

Jerri, who teaches in the master of arts in teaching at-risk students, and Deborah, chair of the teacher education department, developed the program four years ago.

After school and in the summer, children participate in guided art processes.  Classes can range from three to 20 students. 

Jerri and Deborah often begin a class by asking how many children think they are artists.  Few do, but they find they are.

Jerri Shepard
Jerri Shepard with some of the art on her office wall

Using a guided art method that assumes anyone can create art, the children are introduced step-by-step to five universal shapes—straight line, curved line, angle line, circle and dot.  Drawing with prisma-color markers, they produce “quick, attractive results,” said Jerri.

Her concern about at-risk children started while working as a school psychologist and with children at the juvenile court in Phoenix.  Jerri, who came to Gonzaga 17 years ago from Visalia, Calif., is director of the Institute for Action Against Hate.

Deborah’s background includes literacy and curriculum development with children considered at risk for academic failure.

After the child creates a drawing, the teacher makes a copy and gives the original back to the child.  They use the copies to make tote bags, bookmarks, calendars and greeting cards, which hare sold at the YWCA Women of Achievement Luncheon, the Gonzaga Bookstore and in the community.

“It’s amazing the art the children have produced,” Jerri said.  “The items sold produce revenue to further develop the Heart to Heart Art program.”

Creating art in itself fosters a sense of belonging, success and creativity, she said.

Jerri Shepard in Kenya
Jerri teaches basic lines as steps into art.

Deborah and her service learning students also lead an activity that teaches children to act out fairy tales with nonviolent endings.

For the service-learning students from Gonzaga University, it’s an opportunity to translate theory they learn in the classroom into practice. 

Courses prepare them to understand that when a child has a meltdown over something, like someone taking his or her marker, it may be about more than the missing marker.  It may be about something that happened at home the night before.  So the Gonzaga students debrief after a class.

“We need to meet a child with openness, rather than reacting to a child’s misbehavior,” she said.

“We have a passion for programs that uplift children,” Jerri said.  “Everyone benefits when we improve the lives of children.”

Speaking recently at the United Nations Association-Spokane, she summarized the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which has not yet been ratified by the United States.  Rights include protection from discrimination; developing in a healthy, normal manner—physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially; adequate nutrition, housing, recreation and medical services; a harmonious family with affection and material security; an education; opportunity for play and recreation; protection against neglect, cruelty, exploitation and trafficking, and protection from being forced to work.

“We like to think in the United States that all children have those rights, but many children we work with do not have those rights,” Jerri said.

She and Deborah find that children are resilient and can overcome “significant obstacles if sufficient protective factors are in place.”

Those protective factors alter or reverse potential negative outcomes to life stressors.

Heart to Heart Art began as Heart to Art after Father Robert Spitzer, Gonzaga president, sent Deborah and Jerri to a Dialogue for Democracy Conference and challenged them to develop a program that connects the university to the community to meet the needs of youth.  As president of the YWCA board, Deborah is aware of needs of children in the community. 

The YWCA now offers after-school and summer programs as an add-on to the existing after-school and summer programs for homeless youth.  The YWCA found that children did best if they stayed in their regular school and were brought by bus to the after-school program.

At first the program had few art resources for the summer program, but Jerri and Deborah provided supplies they already had on hand and have volunteered their time to this program.

“Art is a good place to start working with at-risk youth.  It’s our first language,” she said.  “We think in images and symbols first.  Some ways to teach art, however, discourage artistic skills.

“The after-school program provides an anchor and consistency in the lives of homeless children,” Jerri said, noting that it fits in with the resilience theory about increasing protective factors by looking at what is going right for children rather than what is wrong and what needs to be “fixed.”

Factors key to resilience are positive relationships, meaningful learning activities and high expectations.

Often homeless parents are busy making ends meet, scrambling to put one foot in front of the other, so teachers and volunteers can develop healthful relationships that supplement family support.

“Some children have horrible stories.  Healing for them does not come from talking about their trauma in isolation, but from being in a structured community that enables them to have healthy relationships and develop a sense of accomplishment by creating something beautiful,” Jerri said.

“The arts provide a stable place in life.  We don’t analyze anyone’s work.  Although art therapy can help heal children, this is not a therapeutic program, but  can have therapeutic results,” she said.

In August, Jerri, Deborah, Monica and Sima Thorpe, director of the Center for Community Action at Gonzaga, presented the Heart to Heart Art program at the First International Teacher Education Conference on Service Learning in Brussels. 

Then they joined Monica at the World Congress of the YWCA in Nairobi for three days.   Near there, they visited the Kibera slum and went through the process of teaching art at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Secondary School for students who have lost one or two parents to AIDS.   Their curriculum does not include arts.

Next summer, Jerri and Deborah hope to return with an art curriculum for their summer program.

“When we think of U.S. children at risk, we have no idea of the conditions in which so many children live.  Few have the rights and privileges of even the  most deprived U.S. children,” Jerri said.

She and Deborah are developing an arts curriculum to include in an existing after-school program or as an intensive summer program to meet needs of students in this community or globally.

For information, call 323-3471 or 323-3663.