A lively group of teen-agers in jeans and T-shirts gathers around the director to block scenes from a play. Intent on his instructions and their scripts, they look like any high school drama class getting ready to put on a show--some giggles, a little horseplay.
But this is not a high school, this is Pride House, a Van Nuys residential facility for abused children, and most of these youngsters are wards of the court. The drama class is one of many free arts programs offered daily to children ages 1 to 18 at residential care facilities all over Los Angeles and Orange counties by the Free Arts Clinic, a volunteer, nonprofit organization whose motto is "art heals."
Founded by Carolyn Nelson Sargent in 1974 and formally incorporated in 1977, the Malibu-based arts clinic believes that many abused children can deal more easily with their pain through artistic expression than more traditional verbal communication. "Abused children often have a negative self-image and a history of failure," explained Elda Unger, the group's president and an arts therapist herself. "We believe that the arts can be used to help these youngsters break through old behavior patterns of anger, violence and fear and learn productive ways to communicate and achieve self-esteem."
Staff of 65 Volunteers
Teaching music, dance, drama and other arts to at least 1,000 children a week are 65 volunteers. They arrange frequent outings to the theater, museums, restaurants, parties and sporting events.
The clinic's staff members work closely with the facilities they visit, and the arts program for each site is tailored to its particular needs and age groups. At Pride House, for example, teen-age creativity flows in four Wednesday night classes that include graphic arts, creative writing and meditation as well as the drama workshop. Drama instructors Denise and Don Gordon direct active and often noisy sessions, punctuated with a lot of yelling and hugging from all involved.
"These kids have some tough personal problems they're overcoming and we respect their efforts," Don Gordon said. "They're great to work with--talented, smart, loving, kind, generous and sensitive. We feel as though we don't really do anything--they do it all. They've had years of people telling them they're no good, they can't do anything. We say, 'You can do it differently, but you can't do it wrong.' It's like giving them a license of freedom, and they're so responsive."
'Earn Their Trust'
"We have to be absolutely honest with them to earn their trust," added Denise Gordon. "And, when we do, there's so much satisfaction in working with them."
Both Gordons agree that their Wednesday nights are special, and so do their students, who took a break from class on a recent Wednesday to share their thoughts. Some sample comments:
"Acting has helped me be less shy and more outspoken. I feel I'm doing something for me."
"I was scared at first, but I feel at home up there. It's a natural high."
"I really like attention and this is a positive way to get it."
"Acting makes me feel I'm a part of something important."
"Getting up on that stage brings up a lot of things from your past and sometimes that's very hard."
"I always wanted to be in a play, but I was into drugs and I kept getting kicked out of schools, so I never had a chance to do it before now."
Actress France Nuyen, who teaches the Pride House meditation class and is the Free Art Clinic's longest-serving volunteer, said, "Seven years ago we began with a grooming class and the program just grew from there. I find these children are more open and communicative than those who aren't in trouble, and working with them has given a new dimension to my life."
Come From Many Areas
Art clinic volunteers come from many areas, including the artistic and entertainment communities, and are carefully screened and supervised by trained staff members. They are expected to make a time commitment of two hours a week for 20 weeks because, as Unger pointed out, "These kids have had so many disappointments in their lives, we feel it's crucial for us to be there consistently for them. For many of the children, this is their first positive experience with adults and we feel the responsibility of being role models for them."
Unger emphasized that the volunteers are not therapists. "What they do is therapeutic," she said, "but they're instructed to share only their art, time and attention. They never attempt any therapy. When kids do art work, they externalize some of their anger, fear and hurt, and that's sufficient in itself. They don't need to talk about it with our volunteers."
Those volunteers, often busy celebrities whose schedules don't permit a 20-week commitment, are likely to participate in a Free Arts Day, a popular event that takes place at various times during the year. Unger described it as "a three-ring circus of the arts," a full day's worth of workshops that introduce the children to many art forms.