8 Sports and Art Therapy Organizations You Should Know

art therapy

These 8 organizations use sports and art therapy to help people facing challenges like homelessness, autism and PTSD.

Sports therapy or art therapy may not be something you’d immediately consider pursuing when help is needed, but maybe you should. The American Art Therapy Association finds art therapy can help people “explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.” The benefits of art therapy are seemingly endless.

Here’s a look at some programs making a difference in people’s lives today through sports and art therapy.

Combatting Homelessness

In January 2015 564,708 people in the United States were experiencing homelessness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. With art therapy, people affected by homelessness can find an outlet to express themselves and create the possibility for a better future.

1. Art With a Mission

In Los Angeles, California, Art With A Mission (AWAM) welcomes the homeless and near-homeless from Skid Row to The Midnight Mission to express themselves through art. The program began in 2012 and attracts the area’s homeless on a regular basis. Through donations, the mission provides the basics for participants, such as construction paper, coloring books, crayons, colored pencils and paints.

art therapyArtwork created at Art With A Mission.
art therapyA collection of work by Jerome, a frequent attendee of Art With A Mission.
art therapyA piece of art being created at Art With A Mission.

“They sit down and draw and suddenly it’s like wow!” Joey Weinert, community relations coordinator at The Midnight Mission, told me of the art that participants create. Weinert finds the program helps take people out of the mundane, “the day-to-day.”

art therapyA collection of art from Art With A Mission participants.

“While they’re here…they have a little bit of something else,” Weinert said.

art therapyAn attendee draws at Art With A Mission.
art therapyA piece of art created at Art With A Mission.

2. Art From the Streets

Art From the Streets (AFTS) in Austin, Texas, helps people affected by homelessness improve their lives with studio art sessions and has a program that assists them with selling their work. By earning income from their art, some participants have managed to get off the streets, while others earn a modest living that allows them to purchase basic necessities — clothing, shoes, food. Monetary rewards aren’t the only positive outcomes of the program. There’s also the sense of pride, self-worth and purpose that participants experience.

Artist Nayo said, “I like to paint abstracts. It lets my imagination run. AFTS gives me a chance to make a little money and enjoy the air-conditioning.”

art therapyNo. 4 by Nayo. Courtesy of Art From the Streets.

Joseph Brunson said, “AFTS is something to look forward to…an expansion of my sanity. I enjoy creating.”

art therapyNo. 4 by Joseph Brunson. Courtesy of Art From the Streets.
art therapyNo. 10 by John Monbelly. Courtesy of Art From the Streets.
art therapyNo. 13 by Cathy Haynes. Courtesy of Art From the Streets.

Art Therapy for Autism

About one in 68 children in the United States has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the CDC. Autism Speaks characterizes individuals with ASD as those with “social-interaction difficulties, communication challenges and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors,” while often also having sleep, anxiety and mood disorders. Art therapy can help.

3. NOLArts

Board-certified art therapist Kate Lacour of NOLArts explained, “The primary strength of art therapy for [those with autism] is that the activity itself is fundamentally enjoyable and can be used to build upon and expand on preexisting interests. Art materials can be adapted to address sensory concerns (to provide sensory soothing or to gradually acclimate clients to aversive stimuli), and art therapy sessions can be structured to facilitate nonverbal communication (using art as a form of engaging with others) or to encourage kids who are normally reluctant to speak to use more language.” She added that art therapy plays an important role in defining identity as it gives young people the opportunity to “exercise agency and creativity.”

4. Play-Place for Autistic Children

Many sports and art therapy programs exist for people on the autism spectrum. One offering at Play-Place for Autistic Children in Michigan is Brain Kwon Do, a combination of martial arts with Brain Gym and Bal-A-Vis-X (Balance/Auditory/Vision eXercises).

art therapyBrain Kwon Do at Play-Place for Autistic Children. Courtesy of Play-Place for Autistic Children/Facebook.

5. ActionPlay

At ActionPlay in New York, participants with autism create and perform original shows about their unique interests and passions.

6. Surfers Healing

Surfers Healing takes a unique approach to therapy through surfing. It’s a nationwide grassroots nonprofit that offers surf camps for children with autism — free of charge.

art therapySurfers Healing surf camp participants ride the waves. Courtesy of Surfers Healing/Facebook.
art therapySurfers Healing surf camp participants ride the waves. Courtesy of Surfers Healing/Facebook.

Professional surfer Israel “Izzy” Paskowitz began the organization after his son Isaiah was diagnosed with autism, because riding the waves calmed him unlike anything else. In 2016 about 5,500 kids participated in its surf camps.

art therapyA surfer and child prepare to hit the waves. Courtesy of Surfers Healing/Facebook.

“Parents are amazed that their children are so happy in the water and anxiety seems to decrease for the remainder of the day,” Danielle Paskowitz, Izzy’s wife, shared.

art therapyReady to surf! Courtesy of Surfers Healing/Facebook.

The experience has resulted in several kids with autism continuing the sport.

Helping Veterans

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can affect anyone who’s experienced trauma, and it is prevalent among members of the military. For every 100 Gulf War veterans, about 12% have PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. About 30% of Vietnam War veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.

7. American Healing Arts Foundation

At the American Healing Arts Foundation (AHAF) in Scottsdale, Arizona, art has proven to be a form of physical, psychological and spiritual therapy for veterans, especially those suffering from PTSD. Open and free to all veterans, the organization provides art classes to advance wellness, and more than half of the instructors are veterans.

art therapyA veteran paints during an AHAF class. Courtesy of AHAF.

Veteran Steve Smigay witnessed firsthand the benefits of art therapy at AHAF: “In all of the classes I felt encouragement, camaraderie and the artistic ability within. One of the most important experiences I witnessed is how the art classes provided therapy for my fellow veterans…. The art classes have the ability to reach the inner core in each of us and provide a personal therapy to our everyday life.”

art therapySculpting at AHAF. Courtesy of AHAF.

AHAF founder Judi Combs said participating veterans find peace while practicing art, and it has helped them more than she ever imagined. “It’s just shocking,” she shared.

A Vietnam War veteran told Combs that when the VA said they could not help with his depression, they handed him a flyer for AHAF. Since attending classes, his mental state has improved, he’s outspoken, and he’s helping other veterans.

“We have had such success,” Combs said. “They have touched our lives as much as we’ve touched theirs.”

8. Music for Veterans

Music for Veterans in Erie, Pennsylvania, works to improve veterans’ lives through music. The group organizes six-month sessions in which veterans learn to play a musical instrument with the goal of finding emotional healing and peace. About 45 to 50 veterans participate weekly in the program, and some have been a part of it since its inception.

art therapyA veteran plays the trumpet. Courtesy of Music 4 Veterans.

Vinny Stefanelli, director of Music for Veterans, explained, “There is one goal of the program: healing, whether that’s lessening anxiety or dealing with physical issues that are a result of their service. But there are two elements that facilitate the healing: music and camaraderie.”

art therapyVeteran Johnny C performing. Courtesy of Music 4 Veterans.

The accomplishments of the veterans are revealed at live community performances, and clinical research of the program has shown it’s successfully helping participants reach their goals and reducing PTSD symptoms.

art therapyVeterans in the program perform live. Courtesy of Music 4 Veterans.

“They are more comfortable with their music skills (music is like meditation: the more you do it, the better you get at it and the better your results are). Also, they are developing strong friendships with their fellow participants,” Stefanelli said.

As these organizations demonstrate, sports and art therapy are a helpful solution for people of all ages, with different needs — and they’re something we could all benefit from. end



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