, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

April 14, 2014

Art classes help kids handle tornado trauma

MOORE — From dancing to writing prompts, playing pretend to drawing a comic book, students at Plaza Towers and Briarwood elementary schools have been busy creating.

Although the students have certainly been having fun, there’s more behind the weekly, half-hour creative-based classes than meets the eye. The classes, called Art Feeds, are part of a free 12-week therapeutic art program designed to help participating students cope with the trauma of having their schools hit by an EF-5 tornado on May 20, 2013.

“Art Feeds is very specific to getting those emotions to come out without saying, ‘Tell me how you feel.’” Plaza Towers counselor Michelle Fowler said about the nonprofit arts program based out of Joplin, Mo. “It has that wonderful way — like play therapy. You play and kids never realize they were in therapy. With Art Feeds, it’s a great way for them to process their emotions without them realizing it.”

Kimberly Martinez, a fourth-grade teacher at Plaza Towers, said her 22 students look forward to the weekly classes led by volunteers. She said the students now dub the day “Fun Friday.” With the weather starting to take a turn to the more severe, she said it’s been good for the students to relieve anxiety through creative outlets.

“I think at first they were not really sure what was going on and then they really just enjoyed it. I noticed when they do the journals, that’s more when they express themselves about their feelings, they talk more about the tornadoes. We did a couple things where it was just a picture of somebody building a house and of course they wrote about their houses being rebuilt.

“I have one little girl in here, and Sydney Angle was her best friend. She just had a picture of a candle, and for me it was just a candle, but for her it was something that represented Sydney,” Martinez said, referring to one of seven children at Plaza Towers who died in the tornado.

During Art Feeds classes the week of March 31 to April 4, students “rebuilt” Moore. Volunteer instructors encouraged students, in pre-kindergarten to sixth grade, to imagine the types of buildings they’d like to see built in place of locations destroyed in the tornado.

With cardboard boxes, colorful craft paper, markers and glue in hand, students created everything from the practical to the wacky.

Martinez’s student Brooklyn Haywood, 10, bounced from side to side at her desk as she looked over a previous sketch she had created of a “kids only tower.” Her desk was littered with an assortment of craft goods as she readied to build her whimsical building, which would eventually include a rock climbing wall, slides, swimming and more.

“It’s fun and we get to do creative stuff I probably wouldn’t do,” she said, never letting her eyes leave her work.

Once completed, Brooklyn’s structure joined the creations of students schoolwide in a cardboard city assembled in the front entryway. The new city featured several hospitals, a red barn, a dog house, homes, a “SpongeBob store,” basketball court, pharmacy, hotels, restaurants and more.

Perhaps the most significant of them all: A new school emblazoned with the words “The tornado took my school! But will never take our panther pride! Roar!”

Since the beginning of the year, Fowler said the school has been working with students in classes, groups and one-on-one on different coping mechanisms for dealing with trauma and anxiety. Art Feeds has become another positive avenue for every child to express emotions connected to tornado-related trauma, she said.

Since the Art Feeds program began, Fowler said she has noticed students drawing fewer and fewer tornadoes — something she sees as marked progress.

The program was facilitated and operated in the schools free of cost by Art Feeds and volunteers. Fowler said she loved how self-sufficient the program was, requiring very little effort from school personnel.

Hannah Cruz writes for The Norman Transcript.

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