Thursday, April 10, 2014

On art, therapy and tornadoes

I spent 12 weeks this spring volunteering for Art Feeds, an art therapy program, in Plaza Towers Elementary, one of two schools destroyed in Moore, Okla., on May 20, 2013, from an EF-5 tornado.

I spent Monday mornings in one of two 5th grade classes, rotating every week. Some of the kids were very open about their experiences with the tornado, sharing stories about their homes being destroyed or their dog never coming home. It was always brought up matter-of-fact. Living in the wake of the tornado, after all, is just a reality of their young lives. Others hardly mentioned it, but brought up other life issues. One week the project was to do a self-portrait. Students were instructed to draw themselves however they saw themselves, inside and out. All but one child drew themselves with smiles. A boy drew himself frowning and crying. I asked him about it. He said he's always sad. He said he's medicated and just feels numb to everything. It was heartbreaking to hear such a young person share something do distressing.

A few weeks later the project was to use cardboard boxes to rebuild Moore the way they envisioned it — fill in all the empty spaces left from the tornado with whatever they want. Students were told they could do anything — from the funky to the practical. The same sad, sweet boy decided he would build a pharmacy — because people still need their medications. Many students still did silly — video game stores, Sponge Bob stores (as seen below), or houses with swings and slides. But others wanted to be sure there were plenty of hospitals and new schools for everyone. It was incredible watching these bright, hopeful minds imagine the future as they reflected on a dark spot in their pasts.

One of the hospitals built by students.

A man barbecuing and a barn. 

 Of course, the school needs to be rebuilt. I love the inscription on the side.

A Sponge Bob store — whatever that is — and a new playground.

And a hotel.

Besides volunteering in the classroom, I also went to Plaza Towers the last week of the program to write a story for my job. I thought I knew what I was dealing with, considering I had just spent 12 weeks elbow deep in the program. What I didn't realize is that the principal had set me up to talk to the teacher who instructed the students who lost seven of their peers during the tornado. I was incredibly moved to hear the teacher talk about how her students use the art to grieve their lost friends. The magnitude of that hit me like a ton of bricks and I'd be lying if I said I didn't go home and cry.

Participating in Art Feeds was a form of therapy for me, too. I was really grateful to get to return to Plaza Towers, the school I had witnessed destroyed first hand on May 20, and realize there was still hope and optimism for these students and teachers. The last week of the program was particularly painful for me as it was the first time this year the state received threats of severe weather. It brought back a lot of anxieties and fears. By an act of God, I was comforted by an address given during General Conference this year. Elder Rasband shared an account from the May 20 tornado by a girl who, coincidentally, is the daughter of the teacher's aide I interviewed. I was comforted to hear her testimony of God's awareness of her. I know God is aware of his children, at all times, but especially during trials.


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