Sunday, September 9, 2007

From Art Camp to Art Therapy: A Virginia Teacher's NOLA Experience

I met Kathleen Armstrong at the NorthStar Church Network Ministry Conference held in the First Baptist Church of Alexandria, VA on September 8, 2007. She was moderating a session entitled Network ... New Orleans, and she wanted to share her story of the transformative volunteer experience she had during her response to Hurricane Katrina survivors. Armstrong, a Fairfax County art teacher, is also a Disaster Relief Coordinator with NorthStar. She calls the story, From Art to Art Therapy.

Armstrong and a crew of volunteers had packed up a trailer full of arts materials including books, foam, and beads collected at Lanier Middle School. The team was intending to donate their time and service at a makeshift art camp for the residents of the New Orlean's Algiers community. After a two day drive in a rented truck and a stop-over in Tennessee, upon arriving the team learned that Michael Johnson, a young man who had just graduated from Frederick Douglas High School, was visiting a friend when another young man in a drug induced state mistook Michael's identity and shot him. Michael died in June.

The Bethel Baptist Church, where the arts camp was to be held, is located in the backyard of the high school where Michael graduated. Pastor Charlie Dale explained Michael had also lived directly across the road from the church. So it was at arts camp that over 40 neighbors and mourners, including Michael's younger brother Lil'G, and Michael's young girlfriend, gathered to seek solace and comfort through the connecting force of art and community.

Michael's mother, having lost all her photographs save but one in the flood, brought a picture over to the art camp to see if copies could be made. Armstrong helped her not only to make duplicates, but to create t-shirts and a scrap book in memory of her son. Also, because the local funeral home had been flooded, Michael's mother then asked Pastor Dale if the funeral service could be held at the church. Little did she or arts camp coordinators know, but the new church Pastor had been working towards trying to incorporate more members of the community in the congregation!

Armstrong believes her art camp quickly became art therapy and that the experience reinforced everything does not always go as planned. When she wanted to start camp at 9:00 each morning, she was told to look at it as a "suggested" time only. A major presence on the high school football team attended the camp and each day just sat and watched, absorbing everything like a sponge but not creating any art for the entire week. If the camp became therapy, perhaps that was best evidenced at the the end of the week when the football star accepted a church altar call and became baptised.

NorthStar is an association of Baptist Congregations at and recently teamed up with the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans to respond to need.