By Colleen Sparks
Knowing that art has the power to heal, Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona is expanding the ways it helps children and teens express themselves creatively.
The Bob & Renee Parsons Place for Art and Transformation, the non-profit organization’s new facility at 352 E. Camelback Road, allows even more space for artistic expression in a comfortable setting. The brightly lit center has ample room for social distancing, as well as for youths to deliver performances and show their artwork in exhibits. This space, which the organization expanded from 11,000 to 14,000 square feet, provides a safe place for children, teens and young adults to visit anytime to engage in art projects, socialize and seek support. The Bob and Renee Parsons Foundation provided much of the funding for the new building, which Free Arts previously had leased.
Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona’s mission is to transform “children’s trauma to resilience through the arts.”
The organization does that in many ways, including a weekly mentor program through which adult volunteers teach art sessions to children living in social service agencies including group homes and homeless shelters for up to 16 weeks. Professional artists also guide children through focused art-making sessions in drawing, cooking, dancing, drumming, painting, jewelry making and other creative outlets to help them develop skills and self-efficacy. During Free Arts Days, children in partner social service agencies practice self-expression with volunteer mentors’ support in these one-day events. Youths also learn new types of self-expression with assistance from volunteer mentors in day camps.
“We’re giving them an outlet for how they can use art to express themselves and process their trauma,” said Alicia Sutton Campbell, executive director of Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona. “It’s difficult to just hear about someone’s trauma. When they tell us something about their story through art it’s beautiful.”
Those from birth to 18 years old participate in the non-profit organization’s offerings while an alumni program allows teens and young adults who have previously taken part in the activities to stay connected with their peers and the volunteers and staff members. These alumni engage in art projects, leadership opportunities and apprenticeships.
Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona served nearly 6,300 children from Oct. 1, 2019 to Sept. 30, 2020.
Darlene Minkler and her son, Gordon Barsotta-Northern, 22, have strong ties to Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona, after Gordon took dance classes through the organization starting when he was almost 12 years old.
Minkler and Barsotta-Northern were living in a homeless shelter when an instructor from the non-profit organization came there to teach modern dance.
“I credit Free Arts with saving my son’s life,” Minkler said. “His dad was never really involved in his life. At that point that we met Free Arts he (Gordon) was cutting himself, trying to deal with anger those ways. Free Arts gave him the opportunity to deal with it through dancing.”
She said the non-profit organization gave her son a way to express himself without being judged. Barsotta-Northern still dances, working with theater companies, and he performed in a Free Arts anniversary gala.
Minkler said she has made friends with parents of other youths who went through the programs. She contacts them for support and to share important things happening in her family’s life. Free Arts even helped Gordon with his homework when he lived in the homeless shelter.
The spacious Free Arts building features artwork children and teens have created on its walls, as well as a training room, much space for storing art supplies and a program room where youths can dance, paint and engage in other creative expression. Some youths performed a Japanese drumming show in the facility. Elaborately created self-portraits that teenage girls, who were unaccompanied minors living in temporary homes made in 2016, adorn a wall in a large, open space near the entrance to the building. Kehinde Wiley, an artist who painted a portrait of former President Obama, instructed the girls in this project, which the Phoenix Art Museum also supported.
A colorful mural that artist Isaac Nicholas Caruso painted, with help from two Free Arts alumni, stretches across the front of the building. Caruso found inspiration from artwork youths in the Free Arts program had created when painting the mural.
Free Arts plans to expand to serve foster families with children and teens in traditional homes, rather than just shelters or group homes, in the future. The youths will be invited to participate in programs at the Free Arts building and be invited to Free Arts Days.
The non-profit typically serves about 6,000 to 7,000 youths a year but reached more than 3,000 children and teens last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some programs were delivered online for safety reasons.
Kris Kollasch, a professional teaching artist who offers workshops for youths through the non-profit organization, enjoys being a consistent adult in the lives of children who have experienced trauma and chaos.
“We’re not doing art therapy but we believe art is therapeutic,” Kollasch said. “We give them the ability to trust caring adults.”
Free Arts always can use volunteers to support the youths and help the organization provide its programs. To learn more, visit https://freeartsaz.org or call 602-258-8100.