Monthly Archives: December 2013

The other new year

The mission of Camp AmeriKids: to enhance the lives of youth living with the challenges of HIV/AIDS and sickle cell disease by providing an enriching summer camp experience, year-round skill building and a supported transition to adulthood. To those of us who are part of the camp community, camp is family. An all-inclusive family. We all, camper and staff alike, feel that camp has changed our lives.

I wrote this after my first summer as part of the Camp AmeriKids program staff as an arts & crafts counselor. I know, I know, very long-winded! I guess I just can’t say enough about camp. If you found the time to read it, I’d be grateful. Maybe you can find something in it that resonates with you, too.

At Camp AmeriKids, the new year has a particular meaning to the camp community. Steve Kidd, our program director, explains:

Camp welcomes donations! Camp welcomes volunteers! Please check us out. And have a healthy and happy new year.


Give and you shall receive

Here’s a short list of great orgs that support learning in profound ways. Some are seeking volunteers, and all are seeking $ contributions.

DONORSCHOOSE.ORG   What’s very high up on the list of the most important things in the world? The education of our children. Yet teachers often don’t have the bare essentials to help kids learn. If you have any teacher friends, you know that although they are seriously underpaid, they are always spending their own money for all kinds of things. The national organization makes it possible for public school teachers in underfunded schools to raise money for projects and supplies. “Public school teachers from every corner of America post classroom project requests on our site, and you can give any amount to the project that most inspires you.” BIll Ohl, a 6th grade teacher in a high poverty school in the Bronx, is a superhero fundraiser and has a special way of choosing books that engage his kids: popular series; bios of people they’re actually interested in, like the band One Direction; and pithier books like The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (great book, review here). You can watch Bill talk about his book drive here. Kate Clute, an elementary school teacher at Bronx Community Charter School last year, discovered that many of her students had never been out of their Bronx neighborhood. So she raised the money through to take her students on a springtime double-decker bus tour of Manhattan. Afterwards, they spent time polishing up their letter-writing skills:


PROJECT RHYTHM   The mission of Project Rhythm, a Brooklyn, NY-based non-profit: “To use music as an educational tool to improve the social and emotional, cognitive, school performance and job readiness of youth who are poor in means, but rich in potential. Project Rhythm is committed to using music as a way to educate and prepare youth to become beneficial contributors in society.” I’ve seen Project Rhythm’s programs firsthand because they run programs at Camp AmeriKids, where I work. They get kids making music: writing, collaborating, performing, recording, engineering. Then they place them in internships. What more perfect way to connect with youth than through music? Their gains from this musical journey affect all the areas of their lives. You can read testimonials from some of their students and listen to some of the work of kids in Project Rhythm programs at sites as varied as Horizons Bronx Juvenile Detention Center, Public School 307, South Asian Youth Action, and Camp AmeriKids.

826 VALENCIA   Co-founded by writer, editor, and publisher Dave Eggers, 826 Valencia is a nonprofit org “dedicated to supporting students ages six to eighteen with their creative and expository writing skills and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. Our services are structured around the understanding that great leaps in learning can happen when trained tutors work one-on-one with students and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success.” This groundbreaking San Francisco literacy project now has spinoffs in seven other cities. Eggers talks about the history of the org in this informative and entertaining TED Talks video.

GIRLS WRITE NOW   Girls Write Now pairs underserved girls with women writer mentors. Their mission: “To provide guidance, support, and opportunities for at-risk and underserved girls from New York City’s public high schools to develop their creative, independent voices, explore careers in professional writing, and learn how to make healthy school, career and life choices.” Let these gals tell you themselves:

It takes a village

In my preceding post, I wrote about my art therapy work with a child in foster care. In fact, more than one Christmas went by during this child’s time in foster care, and, along with the child and her parent, many people worked really hard to help make change happen. Here’s a list of the people on the team that worked to send this child home for Christmas this year:

  • Foster parent
  • Case worker
  • Case supervisor
  • Sociotherapist
  • Psychiatrist
  • Art therapist
  • Clinical administrator
  • Psychologist
  • Speech and language pathologist
  • Educational specialist
  • Educational coordinator
  • School personnel
  • Hospital personnel
  • Child’s attorney
  • Child’s law guardian
  • Birth mother’s attorney
  • Agency’s attorney
  • Housing specialist
  • ACS case worker

A lot of people, right? Here are some of the things they did:

  • Parented the child by providing for physical, emotional, and behavioral needs.
  • Coordinated all aspects of services and case planning.
  • Gathered history.
  • Formed a bond with child and with birth mother to create a feeling of trust and safety and facilitate progress.
  • Oversaw all social work, clinical, educational, and legal aspects of the case.
  • Documented everything with intake forms, quarterly summaries, progress notes.
  • Coordinated weekly family visits.
  • Attended various meetings re: planning, birth mother’s progress, emotional and behavioral concerns, educational concerns.
  • Consulted with the case workers for the other four siblings.
  • Visited the foster home weekly to work with foster parent and child to develop a behavior management plan.
  • Performed psychiatric evaluations and made recommendations for services and medication.
  • Provided monthly medication monitoring.
  • Met with child for weekly therapy.
  • Provided crisis intervention.
  • Performed psychological evaluations and made service recommendations.
  • Performed speech and language evaluations and made service recommendations.
  • Performed educational evaluations and made service recommendations.
  • Coordinated with school to monitor academic progress and behavioral problems.
  • Assisted birth mother in obtaining housing.
  • Represented child’s legal interests.
  • Represented birth mom’s legal interests.
  • Represented agency’s legal interests.
  • Oversaw all aspects of the agency’s casework.

A lot goes on behind the scenes, so I know I’ve left out some people and omitted some of the millions of things they did. For example, people inside and outside the agency provided services for mom (parenting classes, rehab, therapy). I also should mention the emotional toll of making hard decisions in a child’s interests when there are no good options and a dearth of good resources and services. But I think this gives a good idea of the huge support needed to help make change in one child’s life.

If you are interested in learning more about the foster care system and the myriad moral and practical dilemmas involved, there’s no better book than To The End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, by Cris Beam. Here’s the NYTimes review.

A Christmas Carol

Like the Charles Dicken’s tale, this one’s about transformation and haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past. It’s about a ten year-old foster child with big trauma in her past and very aggressive behavior, which leads to a hospitalization, and then to art therapy with me. For a long time she is mostly non-verbal and sullen in the sessions, although clearly smart, and she mostly doesn’t trust me. Her birth mom has a history of heavy substance abuse and they’ve lived through lots of domestic violence. Mom has made many positive changes after a long uphill climb, and she is fighting to get her children back, all five of them. All this child wants for Christmas, she tells me, is to go home. I am awed by how hard she works to overcome the challenges she faces. Often she is not successful and beats up on herself. But she tries as hard as any kid could possibly try. She’s a fighter.

She loves to sing and dance. She is truly an amazing dancer, and regularly dances in our sessions. She doesn’t want to talk to me but she wants to dance for me. I am wowed by what a great dancer she is! At some point, she asks to use my iPhone to find music she can dance to, and I show her how to use Spotify to play the songs she likes. This Spotify/dance thing becomes part of our weekly routine. Sometimes she comes in and does nothing but sing and dance for the whole session.

When she’s not singing and dancing, she wants to make iPods and iPhones. She might not be talking much, but she’s got communication on her mind. She enlists me to cut the devices out of cardboard with my exacto knife and to help her copy the screen from my phone. Then she decorates them and makes earphones out of pipe cleaners. She makes many of them, and they all look pretty much like this reproduction:

phone buttons


phone jewels


One day she comes in after having had a very bad fight in school, refusing to speak, looking angry at the world and probably herself. She gives me the cold shoulder. I give her my iPhone and ask her to find a song that describes her day. As angry as she is, she can’t resist an iPhone, and she types “I Don’t Care” into the Spotify search bar. A lot of songs come up with this title, and she goes through them one by one until she finds one with a loud, angry, punk sound. This one, she says. Then we listen for awhile as the grating song bombards us, and talk a little about what happened.

A few weeks later she comes in feeling great and asks to use my phone to find some music. I ask her to pick a song to describe her life this week. She doesn’t hesitate. The Climb, by Miley Cyrus. She launches into it with great feeling. Although she’s an amazing dancer, she doesn’t actually have a great voice, and the fact that she’s singing a little off-key only makes her impassioned singing more beautiful.

She gets what she wants for Christmas this year. She and all of her siblings go home to their mom by early September. I haven’t had any word of how they’re doing. Keeping my fingers crossed for them. God bless us, everyone!

I can almost see it
That dream I am dreaming
But there’s a voice inside my head saying
You’ll never reach it

Every step I’m taking
Every move I make feels
Lost with no direction
My faith is shaking

But I gotta keep trying
Gotta keep my head held high

There’s always gonna be another mountain
I’m always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose

Ain’t about how fast I get there
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side
It’s the climb

The struggles I’m facing
The chances I’m taking
Sometimes might knock me down
But no, I’m not breaking

I may not know it
But these are the moments that
I’m gonna remember most, yeah
Just gotta keep going

And I, I got to be strong
Just keep pushing on…

Three French Hens

3french hensToilet paper rolls, cardboard, styrofoam.

It’s kind of amazing how much great stuff is in your garbage, in recycling bins, in nature, in the gutter.

To make these with kids, I’d cut a lot of random-shaped cardboard pieces for the body and give them some materials to work with. They’ll do the rest.

Art therapists pay a great deal of attention to materials, as all people respond differently to different ones. It’s an interesting topic and I’ll write another post about that soon. When it’s not practically Christmas eve.

Joyeux Noël!

Hark, the herald angels

So many images of angels all over the place at this time of year. An angel is a lovely symbol of hope, goodness, purity, protection, comfort and consolation. I see a fallen angel as lost soul, a Lucinda WIlliams song. I like this online find:

Angels descending, bring from above,
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
– Fanny J. Crosby

So Fanny J. Crosby turns out to be an American mission worker, poet, lyricist, and composer, 1820–1915. A lifelong Methodist, and blind almost from birth, she was one of the most prolific hymnists in history, writing over 8,000 hymns and gospel songs with over 100 million copies printed.

I am a lover of Italian Renaissance art, and thus a big fan of angels. Here are two of my favorite angel images, very non-Renaissance. I love the first, Jean Michel Basquiat’s Fallen Angel, for the way it invites us to think about how it might feel (in living color, and we can even see into his insides) to be a fallen angel. I love the Guardian Angel on high in the Zurich train station by Niki de Sainte Phalle for its color, joy, and love, as she watches over passengers traveling their roads.

Christmas in care

This is the first holiday season in twenty-four years that I’m not working in foster care. But I find that my head and heart are there anyway. Holiday time in the foster care world is kind of rough. Foster care staff, and lots of parents, go out of their way to make it special, with parties, gifts, and good cheer, but no matter how you cut it, these kids are not home for the holidays. There’s that old Perry Como tune:

Oh there’s no place like home for the holidays,
‘Cause no matter how far away you roam,
If you want to be happy in a million ways,
For the holidays,
You can’t beat home, sweet home.

And no matter how sweet home isn’t, most foster children feel just like the song says. This is a time when artmaking really helps kids. Birth parents and siblings are on every child’s mind, and decorations, cards, and gift-making rule. The world around us gets more colorful, and that gets reflected in the art. The energy generated by all this activity helps children feel less isolated, more engaged and part of the world, and allows them to express their connections to others in non-verbal but very concrete ways. 

Images of houses are always common in the art of foster children, but never more than during the holidays, when the air just seems thick with longing for home.


‘Tis the season

I love wrapping presents! Each one is like a little art project. And I’m a big recycler, so with present wrapping, anything goes for me. I tend to use anything that’s around at the time. This bow was made from ripped up plastic yogurt labels. (I save the cups for paint and other materials when I work with kids.)

yogurt cups


Save your brown paper grocery bags! And use whatever you have on hand to decorate them. I used leftover spray paint, paper scraps, yarn, and ripped fabric scraps to make these.

heart bag-2


These were wrapped with recycled bubble wrap and plastic wrap. The tags were little white price tags (from Staples, cheap) before I took markers, etc. to them. The silk ribbons come from Nicole Snow at Darn Good Yarn. Nicole sells silk yarns made from the scraps of saris, which she purchases from seamstresses in Nepal and India at a good price, thus helping them to support their families with supplemental income. The colors are gorgeous!

bubble wrap

bubble wrap and tags


Camp holiday party

Today was the Camp AmeriKids annual holiday party and sadly, I missed it due to the big snow. I had put together some plain white cards, a box of envelopes, and a bunch of markers for holiday card making at the arts & crafts table. Emma, my co-a&c counselor, contributed beads and other supplies, and judging by this picture that a camp buddy sent me, a good time was had by all the a&c lovers!


It’s always the case that there are a load of kids who love arts & crafts, no matter what else is going on at an event. Even when there are lots big happenings, like magicians and jugglers, or swimming and horse rides, there are always some kids who gravitate to the arts & crafts activity. Certain events call for more elaborate projects, but at a party I’ve found it’s best to keep it simple. Any kind of frame to contain work usually makes it easy for kids to jump in and make something. For last year’s party, I brought small white cards, metallic cards for backing, markers, jewels, stickers, and photo squares for mounting, and the kids had fun making tree decorations. Even when there are lots big happenings, like magicians and jugglers, or swimming and horse rides, there are always some kids who gravitate to the arts & crafts activity. Certain events call for more elaborate projects, but at a party I’ve found it’s best to keep it simple. Any kind of frame to contain work usually makes it easy for kids to jump in and make something. For last year’s party, I brought small white cards, metallic cards for backing, markers, jewels, stickers, and photo squares for mounting, and the kids had fun making tree decorations.