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New arts program sparks creativity in psychiatric patients

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From left to right: BC Children's Hospital Interim Chief Operating Officer Sarah Bell, Special Education Teacher Ali Thomas, Arts Umbrella donors David and Pamela Richardson, Arts Umbrella CEO Paul Laroque 

Arts Umbrella and BC Children's Hospital celebrated a new program that gives child and youth psychiatric patients the opportunity to explore the wonderful world of art with the guidance of professional art instructors.

Made possible by generous lead funding from David and Pamela Richardson, it is anticipated that more than 200 patients will access this program each year.

The BC Children's school programs aims to support students in staying connected to learning, while also recognizing how their school programming can be adapted and accommodated based on their needs. Often the children and youth that come to programs live in more remote communities or have lives where they are quite isolated from connections within their communities. For some patients, this is the first time exploring the arts, and discovering novel ways of expressing complex emotions and feelings.

The Creative Arts program kicked off in January, bringing Arts Umbrella and Vancouver School Board Special Education instructors together once per month to work with children and youth aged 6-18 with complex mental health and developmental challenges.  Together, they help to identify each patient's unique strengths and interests, and deliver various visual arts activities in a safe and supportive environment.

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Ali Thomas, one of the Special Education instructors, has been a teacher with BC Children's Hospital School Program for 10 years and has already witnessed some remarkable transformational experiences in students since the program's inception.

"These children have the opportunity to see something in themselves that they didn't know existed," said Ali Thomas. "Whether it is just being in the moment and enjoying being creative, or seeing the possibilities of having something meaningful to express. They learn to see that there are no mistakes or failures when they are doing art."

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During the celebration on June 22, Ali shared some stories of where the Arts Umbrella program made a real difference for child and adolescent psychiatric patients. There was one story that truly captured the hearts of everyone in attendance, and demonstrated the power of art and how it can help children express themselves in different ways:


There was a boy who came to our program from a very remote community in the north. He had many disruptions in his young life, including many times where there was uncertainty of where he would live and whether there would be food on the table. He also had significant learning challenges that made coming to school a very scary experience. He had been coming to our classroom, but had not yet been willing to participate or even pick up a pencil. On Arts Umbrella day, he was truly terrified to come in. After much coaxing, he finally entered the room but hid in the corner and shook his head 'no' to any offers to start a project. That was when our artist, Cathy, connected with him, coaxed him out using her playful energy, and connected with his imagination. In no time, this boy was creating an imaginary character, who he named 'Gary'. He cut out denim cloth for his pants, used some buttons for his eyes and nose, and some feathers to create a warm scarf to keep him warm. Soon a sturdy suitcase was crafted for 'Gary', along with a home where he could live that had everything he would possibly need. The crafting and story-telling that was sparked in this young boy really brought him out in a way that we had never seen before. Through his art he was able to create a word for 'Gary', a world of plenty where every need was met.

While some patients stay with BC Children's for a few days, others can be there for several weeks and it becomes a home away from home for them. That is why BC Children's is so thankful to Arts Umbrella for helping provide more opportunities for patients to heal and grow while they're in treatment.

Learn more about Arts Umbrella and BC Children's child and youth mental health services and programs

BC Children's Hospital; mental health
Children's Health
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