Numerous studies have shown that doing good is good for you. Some have even demonstrated a measurable correlation between volunteering and good health. Not only do volunteers live longer, they live better: Volunteering can promote a sense of well-being, bolster the immune system, reduce insomnia, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, help keep weight in check, raise energy levels, increase relaxation, and a lot of other cool stuff. Sounds like the fountain of youth, a miracle cure, and a happy pill all rolled into one. With this in mind, I’ve set out to volunteer for a different Los Angeles organization each week. I’ll write about the experience here. This week: Free Arts for Abused Children.
I’ll be honest with you: My BREATHE LA volunteer experience was a little bit of a letdown. While the work they do is very important to all of us, they’re much more a lobbying group than they are a volunteer organization, and the time I spent representing them at a recent public hearing left me a tad uninspired. That said, I realize that everyone is different and has different comfort levels. While one person might be more at home making deliveries for Meals on Wheels, another person will be much more comfortable offering volunteer office support to BREATHE LA. Choosing the right organization to volunteer with can be a little bit of a process. So far I liked Meals on Wheels a lot, wasn’t crazy about BREATHE LA, and absolutely adored Free Arts for Abused Children.
What’s not to love? The nonprofit organization integrates the healing and therapeutic power of the arts into the lives of children and youth who have been abused, or families who have been designated as ‘at risk’.”
Free Arts recruits, trains and places volunteers to work hands-on with victims of abuse. Dance, drama, writing, music, and painting are just some of the avenues of creativity used to encourage abused children and youth to channel their emotions, release anger and develop positive methods of communication.
The first step to volunteering with Free Arts is attending an hour-long information meeting at their offices, which I did last Tuesday night. Arriving at 6:30pm on the dot, I was thrilled to find fifteen other would-be volunteers already in attendance. Lisa Flores, Programs Manager (left) and Ciza Tahan, Volunteer Coordinator (right) started the meeting by giving us an assignment: Using the art supplies provided, we were to create a greeting card. They made it clear that there were no specific guidelines, rules to follow (other than safety and respect for ourselves and others), or rights and wrongs.
Check it out, I made a card for Blogging.la:
Ciza and Lisa used this project as an opportunity to demonstrate positive ways to encourage artistic expression. Ciza made the rounds, complimenting technique and creative choices, engaging us with questions about our work, but never just offering a blanket: “That’s beautiful.” After some time to embrace our inner artist-child, Lisa and Ciza gave us a bit of background on the organization, which was founded by a group of Malibu artists in 1977. They described the different programs Free Arts offers, like their “Free Arts Days,” one-day art festivals for children living in residential care facilities or being served by foster family agencies.
It’s clear that this is a life-changing organization, both for the children it serves and the volunteers who participate. Lisa actually left a career in the entertainment industry six months ago to work with Free Arts, and you get the sense that she’s very happy with her decision. She glows and gushes while offering anecdotes about the kids she’s worked with. Later, I ask her to tell me more about her transition from a Hollywood career to the non-profit sector, and what kind of impact the change has had on her life.
“I worked in Film Development at a production company before making the leap into the non-profit sector,” she explains. “Film has always been a passion of mine but I realized that loving something and choosing it as your career does not always go hand in hand. I started to question the importance of the work I was doing and evaluating my career goals and decided that I needed an outlet where I could make a difference and feel like I was doing important work to help others. I started volunteering at Free Arts for Abused Children a year ago and became hooked! I was thrilled when Karrah Lompa offered me a job and I have never been happier.”
Lisa goes on to explain that the impact on her life has been profound.
“Besides working harder than I ever have before, I am also enjoying the work more than at any other job. I love the mission of Free Arts and I am surrounded by co-workers who are passionate about making a difference in the lives of children. I am very proud of the work we do and look forward to many more years working with this outstanding organization.”
At the end of the meeting, hefty volunteer applications were distributed–screening is rigorous because of the vulnerability of the population being worked with. Ciza and Lisa were kind enough to offer me a “One Time Volunteer” agreement, so that I could participate in the Free Arts Day the following Friday without going through the background check, sex offender registration check, criminal history evaluation form, volunteer interview, and more. They instructed me to arrive at the Westside Children’s Center on Friday morning at 8:30 for a “Garden Party-themed” day of arts and crafts.
I leave the Free Arts information session feeling really uplifted. The good turnout of prospective volunteers, the quality of women who attended, and the obvious excellence of Lisa and Ciza completely shift the lackluster mood I arrived in (oh, the woes of a freelancer), and I find myself reinvigorated by optimistic enthusiasm. Friday can’t come soon enough.
Friday morning I arrive at the Westside Children’s Center and immediately begin helping Lisa and Karrah, the Executive Director, get set up. A group of volunteers from Goldman Sachs arrives, and joins in the efforts. That’s right: A group of volunteers from Goldman Sachs, the global investment banking and securities firm. The company created its signature volunteering program in 1997. Called “Community TeamWorks,” the program is a firmwide initiative that gives members of the firm a day off from work to participate in community service. Pretty awesome, if you ask me.
We all work together to create a veritable arts and crafts-wonderland for the preschoolers of the Westside Children’s Center. Paint, markers, stickers, glitter glue, feathers, popsicle sticks, googly eyes…there seems to be no end to the supplies–or the possibilities. Each work station will be used to create a different project tied in to the “Garden Party” theme: birdhouses, flower pots, plant markers, and plaster handprints that will be used to create a walkway through the children’s new garden.
It’s moving to watch how much love and care goes into the preparation, before the children have even appeared. Once we’re all set up, I steal a moment to chat with Richard Cohen, Executive Director of the Westside Children’s Center and self-proclaimed “Public school L.A. Boy.” A Los Angeles native, Cohen attended Carthay Center Elementary, John Burroughs Middle School, Fairfax High School, and–drum roll please: UCLA. Yeah.
He tells me that the Westside Children’s Center works to help children, but they recognize that children are nested in families which are nested in communities. “You have to be working at all levels and can’t just provide one thing and not the other, one kind of service and not the other,” he explains. For that reason, the Westside Children’s center is a multi-service agency connected to a lot of other West L.A. agencies and organizations, like Free Arts.
“People think of the westside as Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood, Santa Monica…rich areas,” Cohen says, “but it’s more than that. There are big pockets of poverty in Santa Monica, Venice, Mar Vista–places that have poverty and density levels as high as anywhere you’d find in East L.A. or South Central.”
In addition to their state-subsidized preschool, the Westside Children’s Center offers special needs, school readiness, and family preservation programs in addition to foster and adoption services. Richard uses this bit of information as a segue to let me know that I’d make a great foster parent.
Well, maybe someday.
With the help of their cool-calm-and-collected teachers, groups of children settle in at work stations and begin to assemble their birdhouses, flower pots, plant markers, and hand prints. There’s even a station dedicated to shrinky dinks (and why the hell not?). Volunteers stand by to encourage and engage.
One little girl demonstrates abstract expressionist tendencies. Another tells me that a pink bird is going to live in her birdhouse.
“Flamingos are pink,” I tell her.
“Hmm, no,” she says, shaking her head. Clearly pink flamingos won’t do. “What kinds of birds are blue?”
Ah, the joys of conversing with a four-year-old.
The children move from station to station, completing their projects and then carefully setting them out to dry. At the shrinky dinks table, a gregarious little boy shows off his heart-drawing abilities.
“My mommy,” he grins. “This is for her.”
“Wow, you’re drawing four hearts for your mom? She’s going to love that.”
He furrows his brow and considers the dink. “One more!” He exclaims, squeezing a fifth little heart in.
Another child asks me to draw a star for her. “You can do it,” I tell her. “Draw a triangle.”
“Now draw another triangle upside down, right on top of that first one.”
Before long the children have visited each station and completed all of their projects. It’s time for a special pizza lunch before we say goodbye. Volunteers scramble to assemble plates of pizza, salad, and orange smiles, distributing them to hungry little artists. Afterwards, the Free Arts staff and volunteers receive a fervent chorus of “Thank yous” from the appreciative preschoolers, before they head in for nap time: a sleep that will surely be filled with sweet and colorful dreams.
The whole group of volunteers and Free Arts staff gather for a picture and then head their separate ways.
Covered in paint and sweat, I leave feeling better than I have in a long time.
If you would like to volunteer with Free Arts for Abused Children, contact Ciza Tahan.
Previous Installments in the Volunteer Chronicles:
Meals on Wheels West
The Amanda Foundation, a No-Kill Shelter for Dogs and Cats