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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

South Chicago Nonprofit Gives Kids Free Art Kits, Art Therapy: ‘I Can’t Tell You How Many Kids Don’t Have Crayons’

"It's important as a tool to access feelings that we usually stuff down," said SkyART Executive Director Sarah Ward.

Young people painting in a SkyART program.
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AUSTIN — A Far South Side arts education nonprofit is delivering art supplies to local students, providing a therapeutic outlet for young people experiencing instability due to the pandemic.

SkyART’s studio at 3026 E. 91st St. typically is a safe haven for young people to explore their creativity and express themselves through art. With the studio closed due to the pandemic, many of the families served by SkyART’s programs risked being cut off from the city’s only free, accessible art center.

Virtual art classes are not an easy option, said Executive Director Sarah Ward. Most families the organization works with don’t have regular access to computers and WiFi.

To keep serving those young people, SkyART is working to deliver at least 1,000 art kits to families hit hardest by the pandemic, bringing kids supplies such as crayons, watercolors, gauche paint, clay and color pencils.

Hundreds of the kits went to shelters for families experiencing homelessness on the South and West sides. Ward said it is critical kids’ social and creative learning doesn’t get left behind as their families shift gears to prioritize basic needs like paying rent and buying food amid the crisis.

“I can’t tell you how many kids don’t have crayons,” Ward said. “I know that those kind of needs to draw and express yourself are really important to the human spirit. It’s important as a tool to access feelings that we usually stuff down.”

Ward said young people can be significantly affected by the heightened anxieties around them, especially since their routines have been thrown off with schools closed. When the nonprofit polled the families about their needs, more than half said they wanted art therapy for their kids.

To that end, SkyART also is offering virtual art therapy sessions to some of the kids served by partner schools, homeless shelters and social service centers.

These sessions are led by a licensed art therapist who assesses a child’s mental and emotional situation, then works with the child using art as a medium for communicating and managing stress and trauma.

“You can use art materials to further work through traumatic things,” Ward said. “… Sometimes art therapy is just about being calm for an hour. In a chaotic world, you can just focus and  lose your sense of self for just a short period of time.”

Students at Nash Elementary School in Austin were given art kits as school officials were distributing the technology needed for virtual learning. The kits were also given away to families who come to the school to pick up meals being distributed by the district, said Principal Marcie Byrd.

SkyArt’s partnership with Nash has been a valued asset for the students’ social and emotional learning, Byrd said. Nash uses a whole-child approach to education, and Byrd said giving students a creative outlet is helpful for improving their capacity to learn.

“One of the things about my students here at Nash, they suffer a lot of trauma,” Byrd said. “It could be mental trauma, physical trauma, there could be a lot of things happening at home. So one of the things that arts does is it alleviates that stress.

“I have to deal with their social-emotional learning first before I deal with their education.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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