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Afterschool Art Wellness program starts in Victor

Ravalli Republic - 11/7/2023

Nov. 7—Prevention Services at Western Montana Mental Health Center has partnered with a local artist to start an afterschool arts program in Victor Schools.

The free program provides opportunities for students to participate in personal creative expression through the visual arts.

Gabrielle Coffee, prevention specialist with Western Montana Mental Health Center, said the partnership is important.

"Providing a space for students to have an increased sense of belonging helps protect against underage substance use and guards against depression," she said. "The 2020 Montana Prevention Needs Assessment found that 28% of eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students consumed alcohol within the last 30 days. The survey also found that 84% of students had moderate to high depressive symptoms and 10% actually attempted suicide one or more times."

The hour-and-a-half afterschool class, open to all students in grades 5-12, is called "Creative Wellness through Journaling."

Victor School Counselor Ben Rutherford said the program isn't therapy, as the artist isn't a psychologist.

"It doesn't have to be art therapy for it to be therapeutic," he said. "Art is inherently therapeutic. This was more about creating opportunities particularly for folks who are artistic. We don't have an art program. We do have an art teacher who teaches K-12 and her whole day is booked. She gets a little bit of time with everyone but not everyone has a lot of time to do art."

Rutherford said the afterschool program helps students connect.

"It is especially (helpful) for those students who may not fit with athletics," he said. "We have all the athletics but we didn't have any art."

He said the ultimate goal is for students to create friendships, feel that they belong and have a place for creativity.

"Gabby asked, 'What does Victor need?'" Rutherford said. "I said we need a place for connection and belonging. Not everyone may feel that they belong with basketball."

The program is set to run for six weeks and will probably run again in the spring.

The Western Montana Mental Health Center supplied art journals for over 100 students and obtained $2,500 in grant funding from the Rapp Family Foundation for the Victor afterschool program.

"We're thrilled to create spaces for students to belong and we know that youth need to be actively involved in any intervention concerning them," Coffee said. "Victor's art journaling in the creative wellness afterschool program does just that: decreases youth substance use and depressive symptoms by supporting healthy outlets and providing opportunities to connect not only with more safe adults, but also each other."

On Wednesday, students and Art Educator Jean Driescher gathered in the library for the second week of the six-week program. After snacks the students were eager to get started.

Driescher is a retired certified art instructor who teaches basic art media, skills, art composition and creative writing. She helps the students integrate their ideas, thoughts and feelings.

"Jean is phenomenal," Coffee said. "This is the magic of journaling and helps them gain self-awareness and confidence." The process provides a platform for "student artists to grow stronger emotionally and socially through art processes to reduce stress and increase overall wellness.

"The strategies include sketchbook journaling along with positive interactive discussions about art and personal expression," Coffee said. "Students receive prompts for brainstorming ideas, then translating the ideas visually to their journal. All materials are provided and the choices for expression are numerous."

In the first afternoon program last week, each student created the cover design and personalized the first page of their large journal.

"This is a program to get them started journaling," Driescher said. "Then hopefully, they do weekly or monthly journaling as a way to have fun and de-stress."

Each week of the program Driescher presents a brief art lesson and demonstration then assists students with their questions as they are immersed in creating art. Art skills, writing skills, creative problem-solving, visual literacy and expressive creativity are the goals

This week the lesson was on building a positive self-image.

Driescher had lists of positive words the nearly 25 students could select to describe themselves.

"This journal program is all about you and what you want to do," she told the students. "Journals are a great opportunity for you to learn about art. Every week I will show you a new technique or idea to make your journal look exquisite."

She encouraged the students to fill the journal pages with colorful art rather than having white space.

"A journal is an expression about that moment that you are drawing or painting," Driescher said. "It is a reflection of what is going on with you. You can embrace these ideas and discover what you may not know about yourself through art."

The lesson was introspective. Driescher encouraged the students to think about their own self-image. She encouraged students to draw around their hand on stiff watercolor paper then add a positive descriptive word to each finger and thumb.

"If I were to ask you to tell me five wonderful, descriptive words of yourself, could you do it?" she asked. "If you can't, I have lists of positive traits of people, positive words to describe yourself, and a person's personality, style, background, physical shapes and character. Pick out five words that describe you for this particular art piece."

Words included inquisitive, joyful, honest, trustworthy and respectful.

The hand drawings with words were covered with a masking substance, like flowing rubber cement, then the background was filled with fun watercolor painting styles and colors. When the mask was dry, students rubbed it off and added more details. They cut out the hand art then glued it in their journals.

Driescher said future lessons will include doodling, working with words and what their meanings are.

"Right now we're not into writing unless they really want to," she said. "Eventually they will have all the mediums."

Driescher also provides a "free draw" area with drawing books, markers, pencils and paper.

"This is a space for them if they just want to be by themselves," she said. "Maybe they want to do a journal page on their own."

Although the journals are kept during the six-week course, the content is private and only shared if the student artist agrees. At the end of the course students take their creations home.

Coffee said the WMMHC is hoping to expand the afterschool art experience.

"We're currently talking with the alternative school in Hamilton and would love to entertain the opportunity of reaching more districts," she said.

For more information about art-based interventions for youth substance use prevention or to learn more about Ravalli's prevention coalition, Bitterroot Cares, contact Gabrielle Coffee at gcoffee@wmmhc.org.

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