Artwork shows horror and healing
Pictures allow children to recall hurricanes safely and adjust to their new lives
By CHARLES LUSSIER
Advocate staff writer
Published: Apr 9, 2006
photo by Kerry Maloney
In a corner of the cramped library at Progress Elementary in north Baton Rouge, two girls in burgundy shirts and navy blue pants pull out crayons and start to draw pictures.
“We express what we’re feeling in drawings,” fifth-grader Javonté LeFlore explains.
Their guide in exploring those feelings is Folly Shaffer, an art therapist working with dozens of children like Javonté and Darrylneka Thomas, another fifth-grader forced to relocate from New Orleans to Baton Rouge in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Affectionately called Ms. Folly, Shaffer is one of 10 additional social workers for the school system funded by a $200,000 grant from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. Shaffer, however, is the only one practicing art therapy.
She is able to work with only a handful of the 4,000 evacuee children in East Baton Rouge Parish, many of whose emotions are overwhelming their coping skills.
“If we had 40 more of me, we would all still be busy,” she said.
“It’s not a question of trying to get them over the experience,” she said. “It’s trying to get them to a point where they de-emphasize the experience so that it’s a positive part of their future.”
Progress Elementary Principal Sarah Henry said she’s starting to notice a difference in the children receiving help. At first hesitant to leave their mothers, these children now come to school and fit in with their peers.
“They’re not as worried as much about what happened,” Henry said. “They haven’t forgotten it, but they can be kids now.”
By late January, Shaffer had spent several months working with a handful of children at Progress, which at one point took in more than 100 displaced children, including those living in the Groom Road FEMA trailer park known as Renaissance Village.
The plan is simple: Each week, Shaffer asks them to draw the things that are on their minds. No judgment, just free expression. She’s never had any child refuse.
“If you sat the same group down and said, ‘How do you feel about what happened?’, they would just look at you,” she said.
“They are not the most articulate children, even before the storm.”
Shaffer helps them match feelings with colors and words. After completing the drawings, they talk about what they drew and what it means.
She also has noticed children experiencing secondary trauma as their parents struggle to find housing or jobs.
On this day in January, Javonté and Darrylneka need no coaxing to get to work. Like runners in a relay race, the girls grab their crayons and start scribbling.
The pictures inevitably deal heavily with the storm and are suffused with sadness. Unlike their earlier drawings — which overflow with dark colors, dead bodies, damaged buildings and stormy weather — these are more balanced.
The girls divide their drawings in half, one side showing Katrina memories and the other half showing their happier lives now.
“The work is more positive now,” Shaffer said.
“You see more growth, flowers and trees, and more things put together.”
Both of their drawings portray their old homes damaged by the storm and their current homes, which they associate with happiness. They portray rain falling black or red in oversized drops. The children mixed words into the drawing. Shaffer said she’s seen children compose poems in the course of drawing. The words are often misspelled.