Sylvia Ketelhöhn Gron is founder, director and president of Associated Arts for Children (ASART), a group that last year led art workshops for nearly 700 abused and traumatized children. She is 30 years old.
“You let them do art, and then you give a positive affirmation of their creation… It works,” she said.
It’s like art therapy, but not quite – ASART doesn’t ask questions, and the kids can draw or paint whatever they want.
“It’s kind of a silent therapy,” Ketelhöhn said.
The program, about three years old, banks on Costa Rican university students, who need to do 150-300 hours of community service, and on kids who want to make art. Most kids do, even if their tough histories have made them defensive, antisocial and afraid, Ketelhöhn said.
She said she’s seen art help kids become less violent and get better grades in school. Some of them become more interested in art.
Many parents of the kids with whom ASART works are prostitutes, Ketelhöhn said, adding that many are addicted to alcohol or drugs, and most are poor.
“We take extreme poverty as a form of social abuse,” Ketelhöhn said.
Several of the 3-to-18-year-old children at the art workshops have been physically or sexually abused, she added.
Some ASART volunteers are artists, while others are studying psychology, sociology, anthropology or social work. They work in children’s shelters and schools. Volunteers don’t ask the kids about their traumas; they just bring love, creativity and art supplies, Ketelhöhn said. But they can usually tell when someone’s been abused – it comes out in a child’s art, she said.
In 2002, the Child Welfare Office (PANI) registered 16,524 reports of abuse, according to the ASART Web site. PANI runs approximately 40 children’s shelters throughout the country. Last year, ASART did art workshops in 18 of them.
ASART now works in three public schools that are mostly without art programs, and with children in the Bribrí and Boruca indigenous territories, to the southeast and southwest, respectively. Ketelhöhn traveled to Nicaragua in late December to research the possibility of starting children’s art workshops there. She hopes the program will spread throughoutCentral America.
Ketelhöhn was born in Nicaragua to parents of German descent, but grew up in Costa Rica. She graduated from the art program at theUniversityofCosta Ricain 2000.
She was a painter and sculptor who worked in the theme of motherhood and children. This brought to her attention the abuse that some mothers and children face here – she wanted to do art in PANI shelters.
“When I saw all this pain, I decided to turn it into a free program for abused children,” she said.
ASART started without money, Ketelhöhn said. She worked nights atWestern Union. In 2004, the program began receiving outside support, and now Ketelhöhn works full-time as program director. Besides Ketelhöhn, ASART employs an accountant and an assistant.
They’re hoping for about 50 volunteers to give art workshops this year, and perhaps 300 one-time volunteers from Intel and Pipasa corporations.
ASART trains volunteers, who go to children’s homes once or twice a week in groups of two or three.With the younger kids (ages 3 to 11), the volunteers hold dance, theater and music classes, as well as painting and drawing. Older kids are encouraged to be leaders, ASART’s Web site states – choreographers, painters, actors, composers.
“The students experience a new relationship with their tutors, who will guide and advise them in the creative process rather than instructing them,” the Web site states.
The program also tries to make prettier, more colorful spaces, Ketelhöhn said. Kids will take their paintings, turn them into collages and turn those into murals for the walls of their school or home.
“It’s an easy work plan … easy to expand,” Ketelhöhn said.
More than money, what ASART needs are volunteers and art supplies, she said. To learn more about volunteering, call Ketelhöhn at 228-8285 or 393-8513. ASART’s Web site is www.asart-ca.org.