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Nov 2003 / young minds :: email this story to a friend

Art Enriches
By Erin Kuechler

It's ten minutes before I am to leave St. Joseph's Center on a Friday afternoon. I am at my table in "my room," the Art Enrichment room, which also functions as the laundry room. I am bored. I am anxious to leave. I am looking out the window as I often do in moments like and unlike these. Then it hits me again, the view out the window from my table, like it did when I first began working nearly two months ago at St. Joseph's Center, a Head Start facility in conjunction with Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville located in East St. Louis. What looks like a giant Anselm Kiefer installation, an abandoned and dilapidated hospital, floods my field of vision. Pigeons fly in and out of broken windows with tattered, moldy curtains. Pigeons are not doves.

Inside the center, with all of the smiling children and friendly staff, Halloween decorations and hand-washing songs, you can forget you're working in one of the most socio-economically impoverished areas of the country. Life is fun at the St. Joseph's Head Start Center. And that's the point. I start my day by checking in with teachers to whom I've been assigned as an Art Enrichment student. My job is to provide individual and/or group art and play experiences for children who have been identified as needing extra attention or are having difficulties in the classroom. I work with my child clients on an individual basis in the Art Enrichment room. We draw, play with blocks and puzzles, and sometimes just reorganize the art supplies. "How are you feeling?" I might ask the child, as one of the goals of the Art Enrichment Program is to assist children in becoming self-aware and in communicating their feelings through art. The therapeutic relationship other teachers and myself model for the children help to establish a sense of trust and stability as well as bolster esteem.

The Art Enrichment session lasts about twenty minutes. The children are glad to have the extra attention and their teachers are glad to have an extra hand in the classroom. We clean up, and the child is allowed to choose a sticker if she follows directives (a little behavior modification goes a long way). Then we head back to the classroom where the child hopefully rejoins their peers with renewed interest. Once a week I go into the classroom to facilitate a group art activity. Last week we drew pictures what we wanted to be for Halloween. This week we are continuing to identify feeling states through the completion of a "How are you Feeling?" drawing. Again, appropriate conduct is rewarded through stickers.

In addition to the work of the Art Enrichment graduate students, Mental Health and Speech & Language graduate students also facilitate programming as part of their practicums. Each Head Start facility maintains a full-time teaching, custodial, food service, social service and supervisory staff. Our center's coordinator, Barbara Hilliard, runs a tight ship, often putting in a ten- to twelve-hour day. Family Consultant Percy Bean oversees the social service aspect of Head Start. He says, "You can see the socialization skills of the children dramatically improve. We have both a social and academic curriculum."

I really enjoy the time I spend at St. Joseph's and am amazed that the rewarding ten hours per week I work serve to pay my tuition for the Graduate Art Therapy program at SIU, as well as provide me with a decent monthly stipend. There are nine other Head Start centers in St. Clair County where students like my self facilitate Art Enrichment activities as a part of the collaborative effort between SIU-E and Head Start. We work under the direction of Edna Patterson Petty, Art Enrichment Supervisor for SIUE, who is also an artist and art therapist. The entire relationship is wonderfully symbiotic. The graduate students are able to gain fieldwork and practicum experience, while the Head Start centers benefit from art enrichment services. SIUE Art Therapy graduate director Dr. Gussie Klorer echoes this sentiment regarding practicum: "We see it as a win/win situation for all involved ... clearly the community values the students' work."

Since its establishment in 1965, Head Start has played a major role in focusing the attention of the nation on the importance of early childhood development, especially in the first five years of life. The SIU-E Head Start program and Early Head Start program have received the "Carnegie Achievement Award" and the "Excellence Award" from the National Head Start Association. The mission of SIU-E Head Start is to provide quality, individualized, comprehensive services that empower children, families and staff from diverse backgrounds to be their best. Head Start provides eligible families of preschool children with a comprehensive program to meet their social, intellectual, emotional and physical needs.

It is Wednesday morning. George, a fellow Art Enrichment student at St. Joseph, calls to say our Art Enrichment room has been turned in to the Health Room for dental screenings today. That means group activities and individual sessions I had scheduled for today are canceled. With a sigh, I accept the invitation to help George in one of his classrooms, as the ones I've been assigned to are busy with screenings. We sit in the Art Area with four children, making airplane mobiles. Tanesha, a child I have never met, gives me a hug. She snuggles up next to me and fingers my hair with unabashed wonder and curiosity. I smile. I know why I am here.

Erin Kuechler is an artist and art therapist-in-training. Currently she is in the first year of Southern Illinois University's Masters of Art Therapy Program. Erin continues to actively paint and exhibit her artwork. Look for her first solo show, CAKE LIFE, in Spring 2004 at Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts.

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