In December 2010, our Haiti Youth Program launched an 18-month Art Therapy and Youth Storytelling project. The project, supported by the State Department, aims to support children and youth to recover from trauma and lack of healthy outlets, and in doing so works to strengthen resilience, enhance coping strategies, foster self-expression, and contribute to the development of stronger individuals and a stronger civil society.
Over the course of these 18 months, we will train more than 70 Art Therapy mentors from 30 local schools and organizations, directly engaging more than 2,000 young Haitians. The project and trainings are led by our Mercy Corps team of Haitian psychologists, social workers and teachers, in collaboration with three American Art Therapy experts.
During their most recent visit in February of this year, we collected the following observations from those three experts — Kate Fedosova, Lindsay Hurtt and Laura Simms:
The Haiti Youth Program combines spoken narrative, art therapy and photography to help young people reflect on their past and imagine their future after the earthquake. During my four-day photography and visual literacy workshop, I helped art therapy trainees better understand the technical and artistic elements of visual storytelling. Participants agreed that what is lacking in Haiti are stories of hope, beauty and resilience.
During our workshop last week, we challenged participants to think about their identity and the reputation of their country. Our prompt was: Thinking about both yourself as an individual and your country, take three photos:
- How do you see yourself?
- How do others see you?
- How do you want to be seen?
Dennis, one of the 38 mentors in the program, spoke about Haiti's image in the world. He said, "Haiti sees herself as an alluring woman, but the international community sees us as destitute. We want to be seen as we are — beautiful."
The group agreed that Haiti and Haitians should not be defined by poverty and sorrow. They agreed that, through art and photography, they can empower others to re-frame the dominant visual narrative and create stories about comfort, hope and joy.
During the second trip of the Art Therapy and Youth Storytelling Project, we were given the opportunity to travel to various sites to check in on the work being done by the Art Therapy mentors, provide on-the-spot training and, most of all, to be inspired! One of these sites was a camp near Route des Freres in Port-au-Prince.
This particular site conducts workshops twice a week in a makeshift space with 50 children, ranging in age from 6-16 years old. The conditions are basic in this art tent, with a limited amount of chairs and no tables to work on. The sounds from other students, children and passersby — or apparent lack of structure — are no match for this group or their mentors' motivation and connection to the children, which clearly eclipsed all that might have been lacking.
Upon arriving, I was asked to join Ailene in the tent. Ailene swelled with pride as she showed the space and, more importantly, the artwork she has done with the children in the previous weeks.
Moments into sharing the work, I noticed that Ailene's eyes were filled with tears. Immediately, we took a moment of pause to comment on how powerful this work can be not only for the children, but for the mentors as well. Ailene spoke of the emotions that have come up for her as she has begun to engage in this process. "I never realized how much I could understand someone and their emotional state by simply looking at their art, " she says in Creole. "I find myself so connected to these children and what they have been through."
Over the course of that visit, we engaged the children in an art exercise asking them to draw an animal that they felt best represented qualities in themselves. The responses ranged from those feeling "strong like a horse," "having a good heart like a bird" to the more difficult feelings of "jealous and angry like a bat." One little girl spoke quite frankly and likened herself to a pig. Saying that "pigs in our country are treated poorly, they eat trash and then are killed."
As the site visit came to a close, I made a special effort to reconnect with Ailene and encouraged her to do some of this work herself. I reminded her the powerful effect of art and emotions and how, by her developing a greater understanding of her personal experience, the more aware and available she can become for the children she is helping.
Arriving at Tabarre — more than an hour’s drive beyond downtown Port-au-Prince through one devastated area after another — we entered a small camp defined by dust. It was more barren than any place we had seen. Barefoot babies sat in the dirt in front of tents. There did not seem to be any water anywhere.
The school was a single-room open factory made of stone and wood. The children's chairs were made of cement blocks with long boards balanced on them. The space was full. Children ranged from five years old to a 15-year-old boy seated on the only chair — he had lost both legs in the earthquake.
We asked the young people what they appreciated about the program. All the children had something to say. One boy, about eight years old, stood up clinging to his "My Earthquake Story" workbook and said "I love the book and making stories. It has taken the sorrow from my heart."
The boy who had lost both legs lifted himself up as well, "Now, I dream of being the President of Haiti. I want to make sure that every child goes to school and has a chance to be healthy and to find happiness in their lives."
Regardless of the dust and the blank walls and no table, no blackboard, perched on their seats they drew pictures only stopping to hold them up for us to see. "Please come back," they said.
For a glimpse into our initial Art Therapy training through participant photographs, click here. You can also learn more about our Art Therapists and their work by clicking on their names: Kate, Lindsay and Laura.