Catholic Charities arts partnership fosters creativity in children

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GLENDALE — An arts program designed to help heal abused and neglected Arizona children is now unfolding in partnership with Catholic Charities.

Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona, which marked its 25th anniversary last year, expanded its programming this summer into the West Valley with a weekly instructional workshop for youngsters in and around Catholic Charities’ transitional housing complex in central Glendale. The Saturday sessions at the Ironwood Village complex included a variety of easy projects for youngsters ages 5-17 in areas of drawing, music and other forms designed to encourage children’s creativity while allowing expression in an atmosphere of love and support.

“Our biggest priority is to help them feel safe; that this is a safe space and they can be whoever they are; you are accepted no matter who you are, and we are going to love them,” explained Audrey Boyle, Free Arts program coordinator.

Boyle said the organization, which partners with various agencies throughout the state to bring the arts to children from difficult backgrounds, had already been working in other areas with Catholic Charities when it was approached by Catholic Charities Community Services specialist Erin Spano about starting a program at Ironwood Village. The sessions were also open to children in neighboring low-income housing developments.

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Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona

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Other Catholic Charities programs

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Spano said the arts program is a success because it enables the youngsters to experience the fun and freedom of expressing themselves in a setting that builds the trust many have often missed or found difficult to have in the first place.

“Some of them have backgrounds of abuse and trauma,” she explained. “A lot of them have been neglected, allowed to do as they please. They already have tried to build trust with their family — those they are supposed to have the most with, and it’s been shattered.”

What makes the program at Ironwood work is the easygoing yet engaging manner of Frank Thompson, a Free Arts professional teaching artist who conducts the sessions. A former veteran executive with corporations in Virginia, New Jersey and California, the 61-year-old Thompson has been one of the Free Arts teaching professionals for many years, and he is also an adjunct faculty member at Arizona State University, among his many activities. He co-developed the ASU Music Therapy Clinic Community Music and Wellness Program and teaches hand-drumming classes for beginners in the greater Phoenix area. Thompson led children in assembling percussion “shakers” Aug. 3, using decorated plastic drinking cups — filled with beads or dried beans — taped together.

“Constructing shakers out of everyday items shows the kids they can make art out of anything. I like to think of what we do as community building. Drums, for example, are tools to get people to come together and play. It’s extremely affirming for these kids.”

Janitza Reyes, 8, works on her musical shaker during the Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona’s teaching arts program Aug. 3 at Catholic Charities’ Ironwood Village complex in Glendale. (Jeff Grant/CATHOLIC SUN)

Janitza Reyes, 8, smiled as she decorated the cups that would become her shaker.

“I like all of it,” she said when asked about her favorite activity during the sessions, which also have included drawing and music. A third-grader, Janitza said she especially likes to sing.

Brayan Morales-Sanchez, a 12-year-old seventh-grader who wants to be a veterinarian someday, called the arts program “a fun place with no screaming and fighting,” a place where he said he doesn’t have to worry about things.

“I like being here. It’s fun,” he said.

The five-week session focused on African and Afro-Cuban music making and percussion with a final performance in front of family and Catholic Charities staff set for Aug. 30.