Story by Julia DiGiacomo
From dance to painting to puppet-making, ArtForce Iowa’s weekly workshops are helping young people across Iowa heal through creativity. By combining discussions about mental health with hands-on art sessions, youth from underserved populations are learning to express themselves while building resiliency.
The non-profit organization’s workshops benefit refugees, immigrants, and first-generation Americans who are survivors of violence and crime. Adolescents involved in the juvenile or family court systems are another focus. The young artists, aged 12-19, participate in weekly virtual calls where RISE AmeriCorps members create a safe space to discuss emotions and set art-making goals.
Yvette Zaród Hermann, ArtForce Iowa’s arts outreach educator, says the team has been able to head-off mental health crises by either being there for the young artists or alerting others about emergencies. One workshop participant, who will remain anonymous, has benefitted from the extra support amidst her own crisis. Hermann says she suffers from self-harm and other severe mental health issues, which has placed her in a treatment facility away from home. Her father speaks an obscure dialect from the Burma, Thailand region which has made communication about his daughter’s recovery nearly impossible. Throughout the turmoil, she now has an arts community to confide in as well as an outlet for self-expression.
“She’s able to just draw with us and tell us everything that’s going on.” Hermann says. “It’s amazing for all of us because we all feel so grateful that we’re able to reach someone who the system has been trying to stuff down the cracks.”
The RISE AmeriCorps members are responsible for planning and facilitating the art workshops around social-emotional goals and trauma-informed practices. Hermann says the members write a mental health-related question of the day to foster discussion. An art therapist also works with the organization to help design certain interventions. For example, individuals who have experienced severe trauma are encouraged to use messy, free-form materials during their art sessions to avoid restrictions and promote healing.
After each workshop, the AmeriCorps members meet up and decide which students are in need of extra help in any way. Through this work, Hermann says the AmeriCorps members are learning the basics of case management in a loving, supportive way.
This year’s RISE AmeriCorps teams have especially resonated with the young people due to their age and understanding of social justice principles. Youth leadership has always been a goal in ArtForce Iowa’s eight years of existence. But Hermann says this year that vision has been realized. All four RISE AmeriCorps members are 19 - 22 years old and two members were previously students in Art Force Iowa’s programs.
“They come with their whole hearts and I think it’s really opened up the possibilities for our work.” Hermann says. “We’re able to learn more about young people’s lives when there are young people leading and there are less adults in the room.”