Philanthropy-funded creative arts therapy program helps children process emotions and cope with painful experiences
Sitting in the Children’s Hospital Colorado art therapy studio, 16-year-old Annette picks up a black pen and begins to draw.
Within minutes, she has transformed blank paper into an illustration of a man’s head, his distorted neck stretched over a straw-like tube with protruding octopus tentacles. The style is distinctly her own, using pointillism to create shading and detail, its repetitious motion relaxing her. The piece expresses what she feels at this moment: overwhelmed.
For Annette, making art is one of the only ways she can tap into complicated thoughts and communicate painful emotions. Right now, she is battling several mental health conditions with the help of the Children’s Colorado Pediatric Mental Health Institute.
She says that this experience is the hardest thing she has ever been through, but she credits the Ponzio Creative Arts Therapy Program, which provides regular art therapy sessions, not only with giving her hope, but also saving her life.
“Without art, it’s hard to cope,” says Annette. “This program, and the art we make through it, sustains us.”
Transformational gift makes art therapy possible
For many Children’s Colorado patients, there’s a “before” and an “after.” Before they got cancer. Before they were severely burned. Before they experienced trauma. And then, their lives afterwards. After a difficult diagnosis or injury, children often need to build a new identity. They need to process what is happening to them and find language to describe their experience. Creative arts therapy can provide the medium to do just this.
Founded in 2005, the Ponzio Creative Arts Therapy Program began with a transformative $2 million gift from Craig Ponzio, an Honorary Lifetime Director on the Board of Directors, who envisioned a day when every child treated at Children’s Colorado would have access to this life-changing -- and, in cases like Annette’s, life-saving -- therapy.
Creative arts therapy helps children deal with mental health issues by using different means of expression. At Children’s Colorado, this includes four kinds of therapies: music, dance movement, yoga and art. Children’s Colorado is a national leader among children’s hospitals in the breadth of therapies it offers, along with the holistic integration of the program into a child’s overall care plan. This approach ensures that patients’ physical and psychological needs are being met. And just as the hospital provides life-saving surgeries and treatments, creative arts therapy also has the power to heal and transform children’s health.
“Creative arts therapy can expand who kids think they are,” says Katherine Reed, LPC, art therapist and manager of the Ponzio Creative Arts Therapy Program. “They’re already raw and vulnerable after a medical challenge, and they are figuring out who they are becoming. In a situation where they don’t have a lot of control and many things are happening to them, creative arts therapy allows them to have choices - what color to use or what song to sing, to have a voice and to really express and understand themselves more fully. In turn, it also gives their families a chance to see their child in a different light.”
In the next five years, Children’s Colorado hopes to triple the size of its creative arts therapy program by adding therapists, serving patients in additional departments and offering its services across the hospital’s network of care. The full expansion will only be possible with the support of generous donors, since much of the program’s funding comes through philanthropy. Gifts like Mr. Ponzio’s continued investments, along with funds from the Courage Classic Bicycle Tour’s Ponzio Pedalers team, serve as a catalyst to inspire additional support that propels the program forward.
For kids like Annette, it’s critical that the Ponzio Creative Arts Therapy Program not only continues, but also grows.
Building a new identity
Tonight is the opening of Annette’s first-ever solo gallery exhibition, “My Mind in Ink,” a public showing of her art and poetry at Children’s Colorado. It’s the first time most of her family, friends, caregivers and fellow patients will get to see Annette’s creative side and celebrate her incredible abilities, even amidst the daily stressors of her hospital stay.
She is both excited and nervous for the show. But most of all, she’s starting to seeing herself in a new light. Art has become a language that has allowed her to process her feelings, reflect on her hidden struggles and discover a new identity beyond her diagnoses – that of a very talented artist.
When asked what the Ponzio Creative Arts Therapy Program means to her and what she would say to its supporters, the wise-beyond-her-years teenager grows silent. Then, tears well up in her eyes.
“It would be really worth it to donate any amount to this program,” she says. “It keeps the program alive. And so, in a way, it also keeps us alive.”