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How art can transform kids' trauma into resilience

By Mark Brodie
Published: Thursday, February 22, 2024 - 12:08pm
Updated: Thursday, February 22, 2024 - 12:29pm

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An Arizona nonprofit that aims to use the arts to help kids who’ve undergone trauma has a new leader. Matt Sandoval took over recently as executive director of Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona, which he describes as being about transforming kids’ trauma into resilience through the arts.

He says the group served more than 7,000 kids — generally between the ages of 5 and 26 — in 2022 and more than that last year.

Sandoval spoke with The Show to talk about the group and his new position in it, beginning with the role of the arts in helping kids who have gone through trauma.

Completed artwork
Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona
Completed artwork

Full interview

MATT SANDOVAL: Yeah, the the arts are an important tool in that it does a couple of things. When we think about what impacts toxic stress, at the end of the day it’s relationship.

We all experience that when we have stressful moments. Some self-awareness, our connection to other people are all things that help us. We think about the safe person I want to talk to, unload, talk about my experiences with.

Arts are a tool to really expand relationship in a couple of ways, right? So we are doing something creative. We’re tapping into a view of self that is unique. We are, in a sense, developing our relationship with what’s inside us: thoughts, feelings, things that we’re afraid of, things that we’re thinking, things that we hope for.

And then any type of art that is shared is instantly causing us to connect to others. And so there’s a self-expression component of arts that are unique around helping children that have been through the experiences that are common among those that we’re serving.

MARK BRODIE: Do you find that you are able to learn things about some of those kids through the art that they make that maybe you wouldn’t learn about them through reading their case file or talking to them?

SANDOVAL: Sure. And our mode there is to go as far and as deep as a child would like to go. And so there are children and teens, young adults involved in our programing that do creative work and don’t dig deeply into their personal story. And for many, it’s front of mind. It’s something they’re actively processing.

So we take things one step at a time. And for some they’re ready to explore that. They’ll do that through poetry, writing, performance development. For many, it’s just the experience of working with people that are caring for them, giving them the chance to try something new, to not fail.

We say all the time there are no mistakes in art, and that is the opportunity itself for them to experience some form of healing, which for us, healing means return to wellbeing.

BRODIE: I wonder if in some cases the kids with whom you’re working maybe learn about themselves through the art that they make, or figure stuff out or help process what they’ve been through, process their experience through the art that they’re doing with you.

SANDOVAL: Yes. And there are moments where it is clear in the art. It might have a dark tone. There might be some language and images related to the things they’ve experienced. Again, as far as they’re ready and willing to process. And then there are moments where the focus is on what I accomplish, what connection means to me, what my new definition of family might be.

And that’s an important thing to think about, our connections for the children that we’re serving is somewhere in their experience, an important often assumed relationship with an adult has not been productive, has not been safe. And that level of risk, when we’re young — at any point in our life it’s actually a stressful experience — but particularly when we’re young, it’s an overwhelming experience.

BRODIE: So now that you are in charge of this organization, I’m curious about your vision for it. Are there things that you would like to do or a direction you’d like to take this organization that that would be different than what it’s done in the past?

SANDOVAL: Yeah, we’re we’re in the middle of a statewide expansion, which is coming from our 10-year strategic vision. And so there are elements of that that we’ve achieved right in the middle of that 10 years was the pandemic, which put a lot of things on the back burner.

When I think about a couple of things we’d like to accomplish in the next couple of years, the near future, expanding our services throughout Arizona is front and center.

BRODIE: Beyond just the Phoenix area.

SANDOVAL: Yeah, we’re really heavily in Maricopa County, and most recently within the last few months, we’ve started to work in and around Prescott and Yavapai County. We also would love to move up even further north to the Flagstaff areas, including tribal communities, as well as southern Arizona.

So statewide expansion is number one. And then two, I think there’s really something unique and special about Free Arts — not just because I work there — but when you talk about child welfare, child development, child wellbeing, you’ll get people in the community excited, you’ll get people raising money.

And when you talk about the arts, you’ll get the same experience. But then we, because of our model, have put these two awesome things together. And really the interest in that is exponential because it’s drawing in two communities that are very passionate about their issue.

And so what we’d like to do at Free Arts is center us as a convener of learning around what helps children, both in child welfare, overall child wellbeing, with this particular lens of creativity and art. But underneath that, those are tools to building relationship. And so mentorship is at the heart of what we do.

And so, you know, if you snapped our fingers 3 to 5 years in the future, we’d be statewide, and we’d be convening, learning through symposium, modeling training opportunities. And then we’d love to partner with those outside of Arizona who’d like to do similar things.

BRODIE: So you mentioned that the adults in this program try to take things with the kids as far as the kids want to go, you don’t really push too much. I’m curious how that works in terms of if you find a child who is really, through their art, maybe expressing some things that maybe on a consistent level or a consistent basis that, you know, it seems like might be ripe for conversation. Is there more of a traditional talk therapy component that you’re able to offer? How do you take it beyond the art if a child seems like they are looking to move beyond that?

SANDOVAL: Yeah, great question, because there’s always a sense of needing to assess what the capacity is around someone with strong feelings, if there’s any history of self-harm. Those things are really present realities for children that we’re serving.

And so to state up front, where we serve is we’re training volunteer mentors. So we’re operating subclinically in space where children often have access to and are already being treated in some formal way.

But there are moments where we realize that we have been triggered. Our bodies are very powerful mechanisms for monitoring our environment and children in this situation, teens in this situation often have very good reasons to be monitoring the safety of their environment.

And so in the moment, we give a lot of space and thought toward having a trauma-informed approach, which is knowing and recognizing the reality of trauma — its impact, its manifestation of behavior and thinking patterns — but also giving space when needed to calm down, to do what’s safe to do what is the next logical step that will help someone feel connected to the programing.

So we’re not forcing anyone to go deeper. If things are hard, we’ll take a break or practice deep breathing. We’ll do some self-directed activity. And then in the situations where things are more severe, maybe critical, we’ll engage the partner agency, the guardian. We will do assessments for safety briefly with our clinical director and team to help us be able to point a child in a safe direction and collect those resources there.

But for all intents and purposes, the children coming to us already have a network of mental health services available to them. We also know that sometimes this adult in this moment is the time in which someone is sharing something important.

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