Healing children after trauma through art—on both sides of the ocean

Skokie Jewish native artists and teachers Rena Grosser and Ariela Robinson, and Jewish activist Craig Dershowitz figured out how to leverage their work and talents to help heal the youngest victims of violence.

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Craig Dershowitz, founder of Artists 4 Israel, creates art with a little boy in Israel. Photo credit: Linneah Anders

When we hear of children caught in the crosshairs of violence, whether on the South Side of Chicago or in the Middle East, we wish we could help them-though most of us are at a loss for how.  

But Skokie Jewish native artists and teachers Rena Grosser and Ariela Robinson, and Jewish activist Craig Dershowitz figured out how to leverage their work and talents to help heal the youngest victims of violence. 

Years ago, Dershowitz, the executive director and co-founder of Artists 4 Israel (A4I)-an organization that brings healing through art to people in Israel ravaged by fighting-had a conversation with a now-deceased artist and firefighter who served in New York on 9/11. How helpful it would have been, he told Dershowitz at the time, if the children affected by 9/11 had had access to art supplies to distract them on that horrible day. 

Dershowitz built on that idea and wondered what if those art tools had the power to heal, too. He and Chicago-based Grosser and New York-based Robinson formed a collaboration through A4I, along with a team of mental health professionals, artists, art therapists, art teachers, and first responders. Together, in 2014, they created "Healing Arts Kits," therapeutic art supplies as a first response tool that Israeli children could use during their time spent in bomb shelters, when forced to flee rocket attacks.  

Four years later, A4I has now brought the art therapy kits to children in Chicago, to be utilized in the city's most violent neighborhoods on the South and West Side following incidents of violence and loss. In addition to Chicago, the kits have also been used in New York.  

For children, art can elicit expression in a way that verbal communication sometimes falls short. "I've seen the power of how art can be a source for communication, healing, reflection, and positive distraction," said Grosser, an art therapist  who teaches early childhood education at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School.  

The kits help children start the healing process, according to Dershowitz, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Israel. "For anyone experiencing such pain, they need an outlet, a new way to see their present and to creatively imagine a better future," he said. "The Healing Arts Kits provide a new way for children, regardless of where they are or the cause of their trauma, to cope and rebuild."  

The first test batch of 200 kits were deployed in Chicago this past winter by the A4I team in partnership with Urban Gateways, which engages young people in art, and Chicago Survivors, which steps in to help families with crisis intervention following violent loss.  

The kits are designed to be used immediately following a trauma-helping children start to heal by slowing or preventing the onset of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by providing the child with activities that interrupt the trauma. Clinicians assigned to work with families and their children following violent incidents, such as shootings, homicides, and sexual abuse, administer the kits to the children however they see most effective for each individual child. 

Chicago Survivors social worker JaShawn Hill utilizes kits in her therapy. "I have found them to be a great tool to build relationships with the youth, teach techniques to cope with addressing anger and anxiety, as well as open the lines of communications with their caregivers around the emotions they feel," she said. 

Among the contents of each kit are bubbles to help children focus on deep breathing; clay to mold representations of their feelings; finger puppets to keep the kids communicating; and a notebook, to channel their thoughts and emotions.  

In February, as part of their  chesed  (lovingkindness) work, students from Ida Crown Jewish Academy-from which both Grosser and Robinson graduated-helped pack kits and write cards of love and support for kit recipients. Grosser said she hopes the Chicago kits, like those in Israel, will soon be used as part of bar and bat mitzvah projects and other service projects.  

Proving effective in both Israel and Chicago, the kits demonstrate the universality of both children and of art. "Something that originated for the purpose in Israel so fluidly was able to transfer to Chicago, unfortunately for tragedy and horrific circumstance," Grosser said. "But nothing really had to change, which speaks to the power of art."   

Artists 4 Israel plans to bring the kits to other communities in need and seeks partners around the United States. To learn more about Artists 4 Israel, visit artists4israel.org. 

The Healing Arts Kits project has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pritzker Pucker Family foundation to pilot the initiative in Chicago. 

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